Eleven members of parliament from the United Kingdom journeyed to a large ballroom in Washington D.C. Thursday to learn about fake news from three U.S. social media giants, Google, Facebook and Twitter. The meeting was unusual — the official parliamentary session was the first time a House of Commons committee broadcast a public hearing live from outside the United Kingdom. And it wasn't exactly cordial.
“Why has your self regulation so demonstrably failed and how many chances do you need?” Julian Knight, one of the British lawmakers, pointedly asked a Google executive, in a question that seemed to characterize the nearly four-hour exchange at George Washington University.
Unlike many of their American counterparts, the British lawmakers appeared to have no qualms with questioning the moral integrity and fundamental business practices of the American tech darlings. As they pressed tech officials for answers on Russian interference in British elections, they pulled few punches. In dramatic fashion, the visitors from Britain dispensed with any reverence to the wizards of innovation in Silicon Valley.
“Isn't this a massive surveillance operation?” asked one member of parliament, referring to corporate business models that depend on the harvesting of user data.
“No,” said a Facebook policy chief.
“How can your system be described as anything other than inadequate?” another member of parliament or MP asked Twitter, this time about removing inflammatory content.
“Grateful for the opportunity to discuss this,” a U.K. Twitter executive replied.
“Is this too much for you?” a third MP asked Twitter, concerning its “infestation” of “bot” accounts.
“I don't believe so,” said another Twitter official.
The lawmakers took up lines of inquiry both specific to Russian interference and broader, more open-ended topics, such as the development of online ad targeting, the future of news media, and the role of global Web platforms in public discourse. But the committee focused on the perceived disconnect between the companies' vast resources and sophisticated ad operations with what the lawmakers say is a lackluster response to the social harm of misinformation. Several lawmakers suggested that new regulations may be required to boost transparency in online advertising and to better police deliberate lies and misinformation. U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill in October that would impose stricter disclosure requirements for Web platforms running politics ads.
“You haven't looked. You haven't looked, have you? That's the thing,” boomed Committee Chairman Damian Collins, loudly raising his voice and interrupting Simon Milner, Facebook's policy director for the U.K., Middle East and Africa.
In an initial examination of Russian-funded interference that took place during the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, Facebook concluded that only a “limited” amount of activity had been found. But Facebook's analysis focused on Russian accounts that were previously linked to interference in the U.S. presidential election. Collins and the committee have demanded that Facebook expands its search. The committee suspects that additional groups, perhaps other state actors, may have attempted to meddle in the Brexit vote. Collins argued that Facebook's probe thus far was the “bare minimum.”
Facebook, in response, said that it will conclude an expanded investigation later this month, and will share the results with the committee, but may not make the findings public, to prevent those responsible from evading detection.
The House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee plans to continue to collect evidence to understand how disinformation campaigns and false news reports affect British elections and society. The committee aims to eventually draft a report with recommendations to the British government.