Chair of parliamentary committee gives firms a deadline to hand over information about Russian misinformation campaigns
Facebook and Twitter could face sanctions if they continue to stonewall parliament over Russian interference in the EU referendum, the chair of a Commons inquiry has said.
Damian Collins, chair of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee, which is looking into so-called “fake news”, has given the companies until 18 January to correct their failure to hand over information he requested about Russian misinformation campaigns on their platforms.
“There has to be a way of scrutinising the procedures that companies like Facebook put in place to help them identify known sources of disinformation, particularly when it’s politically motivated and coming from another country,” Collins said.
“They need to be able to tell us what they can do about it. And what we need to be able to do is say to the companies: we recognise that you are best placed to monitor what is going on your own site and to get the balance right in taking action against it but also safeguarding the privacy of users.
“But what there has to be then is some mechanism of saying: if you fail to do that, if you ignore requests to act, if you fail to police the site effectively and deal with highly problematic content, then there has to be some sort of sanction against you.”
Collins’s intervention, the first concrete warning that sanctions could follow any failure to provide the information required, is likely to cause concern for the social media firms. Previously he had signalled his dissatisfaction in letters to the two companies without specifying the consequences of noncompliance.
In a letter to Twitter this month, he wrote: “The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate … It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you.”
Collins said his inquiry was looking at the question of what form sanctions could take. “In other countries they’ve taken different positions. Germany has obviously gone furthest down this road.”
In mid-December, the German competition authority issued the country’s latest rebuke of Facebook, accusing the company of violating European data protection principles by merging information gathered through WhatsApp and Instagram with Facebook user accounts.
Collins suggested that one outcome of the inquiry could be social networks being hit where it hurts most: their revenue. “On the advertising side, what’s important is, well, the extent of fake accounts. If you’re selling advertising against those numbers, that cannot be ethical, and clearly that is something the advertising industry should be interested in.”
Collins would not have direct powers to punish Twitter and Facebook if they fail to cooperate more fully, but could ensure bad publicity for both if he continues to summon their representatives to face his committee. Meanwhile, ministers are understood to be concerned by the companies’ attitude and could be sympathetic to any request for action.
Collins’s committee has asked Facebook and Twitter for a broad swath of information about Russian interference in the EU referendum, including details of the accounts and pages operated by Russian misinformation actors. Instead, in early December the two companies handed over a carbon copy of the information they had provided the Electoral Commission in response to a much narrower query about advertising spend from Russia during the six weeks leading up to the vote.
“What I didn’t expect was they would essentially completely ignore our request,” Collins said, describing the companies’ response as “extraordinary”.
“They don’t believe that they have any obligation at all to initiate their own investigation into what may or may not have been happening on the site – to look at the accounts that have been identified by the American authorities and say: OK, are there other accounts that share similar characteristics that could have come from the same source? They’ve not done any of that work at all.”
In the information the companies handed over to the Electoral Commission, they identified small ad spends from previously known Russian actors. Facebook said just $0.97 had been spent on Brexit-related adverts by Russians that were seen by Brits, while Twitter claimed that the only Russian spending it was aware of during the period in question was $1,000 from the broadcaster RT.
The Russian embassy in Britain seized on the initial figures released by Facebook to criticise media focus on misinformation operations. “It’s [the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind] who holds British democracy in contempt by suggesting 52% voters can be bought for £0.73,” the embassy tweeted shortly after the exchange of letters between Facebook, Twitter and Collins.
A few days later, the embassy shared a statement from the Russian foreign affairs ministry: “US & UK financial elites controlling mainstream media are unleashing a campaign to put Facebook, Google, Twitter under strict control alleging they are used by extremists. Russia was targeted by social media fakes many times but it never curbed freedom of speech in internet.” (In fact, Russian authorities have banned thousands of sites since Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, some for promoting “social ills”, others for political dissent.)
In the US, Facebook and Twitter carried out wide-ranging investigations that identified significant interference beyond simple ad spending. Facebook identified 470 accounts and pages run by the Russian Internet Research Agency, a St Petersburg-based “troll army”, while Twitter provided Congress with a list of 2,752 accounts that it believed were linked to the organisation.
“I hope they realise that people’s concerns about this issue aren’t going away,” Collins said. “They have an opportunity to be seen to be proactive. This is taking place in the context of the broader debate of their responsibilities.”