GW Hosts British Parliament Hearings on Fake News

Members of Britain’s House of Commons question Google, Facebook and Twitter representatives over disinformation and fake news.

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Committee Chair Damian Collins answers questions from reporters during a break in the House of Commons hearing on fake news. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
February 12, 2018

By B.L. Wilson

The chair of the U.K. House of Commons Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sports told reporters gathered at the George Washington University Thursday that tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google could be headed for a clash with British and European governments, which exercise tighter control over media than does the United States.

Chair Damian Collins’ comments came as the British Parliament held its first-ever fact-gathering hearing in the United States on fake news. The all-day sessions were held in the Grand Ballroom of GW’s Marvin Center.

“I don’t think the companies share the sense of responsibility we think they should have to act against this,” Mr. Collins said.  “We don’t have the same constitutional constraints that America has. Maybe it’s possible to make more progress in Europe first and for America to watch what we’re doing.”

Testifying before the committee, GW School of Media and Public Affairs Director Frank Sesno said the hearings would be effective in getting the companies to look more closely at their social responsibility.

“What is very powerful and very prevalent now is to make this conversation as stark as it is,” Mr. Sesno said.

Policy analysts from the three tech companies testified first, offering reassurances to the members of Parliament that they would be more than willing to cooperate with British investigators just as they have in the United States.

Richard Gringas, Google’s vice president of news, said his company feels “an extraordinary sense of responsibility.”

“The loyalty of our users is based on trust,” he said, “and if they don’t trust us they will stop using us. Our business will collapse.”

The committee questioned Facebook and Twitter representatives more intensely, asking whether the companies were pressured into investigating fake news sites that were fronts for Russian agencies. In the case of Twitter, the committee asked whether the company allowed lies about British politicians and others to be spread unchallenged.

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy in the United Kingdom, responded that his company’s strength is that “it is a hive of journalists and citizens correcting information that is put out.”

He explained that Twitter blocks accounts that are created for the sole purpose of harassing, use certain language or engage in hateful conduct. Twitter challenges about 6.4 million suspicious accounts weekly.

“More than that, I don’t think technology companies should be deciding during elections what is true and what is not true, which is what you’re asking us to do,” Mr. Pickles said.

In afternoon sessions, the committee heard from academics and experts from civil society organizations. Mr. Sesno told the committee that the problem with social media is that it is not governed by the standards of journalism.

“The most poignant observation is that they have this very strange, powerful hybrid identity as media companies that don’t create any of the content but yet should be and must at their own inadequate levels accept some responsibility for promulgating,” he said.

Asked what it would take to bring them in line, Mr. Sesno answered, “Fear. They fear regulations. They fear a requirement to have to turn over their data, government regulators at some level overseeing their businesses.”

Representatives of traditional media organizations said social media affected viewer and readership, but said those traditional companies are rebounding by changing the content they offer.

At the New York Times, for examples, subscriptions are up and comprise a larger part of revenue. Kinsey Wilson, special adviser to the New York Times, said the news organization uses social media mainly to engage readers and bring them back to the Times. He expressed concern that social media was not transparent about the use of algorithms to target advertisements.

CBS White House correspondent Major Garrett, a former SMPA fellow, said the lines between journalism and the content generated by social media have blurred but are not interchangeable.

“We have to acknowledge that separation from our journalistic organizations that was probably built on a foundation of having limited choices has gone away, and we have to now compete over credibility and trust,” he said.

 

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