Sun 23 February 2020

The threats posed by technology to our democratic processes will only get worse in the years to come unless action is taken, MP Damian Collins warns.

Children are dying because of anti-vaccination messages being spread on social media, the MP who heads Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee believes.

Conservative MP Damian Collins said that emergency legislation is necessary to ensure dark ads on social media platforms are subject to the same regulation as offline adverts and that companies such as Facebook and YouTube must establish “zero tolerance” policies towards “deep fake” films  – videos created using software which can change people’s appearance, behaviour and words.

“It’s difficult to say that you should regulate every word everyone posts on every one of their [social media] pages,” Mr Collins said. “What the tech companies can easily do is look at boosted audiences, people operating networks of accounts to promote what is clearly identified as inauthentic content. 

“There will be films of politicians like me speaking at an event like this saying things I never said to deliberately create a false impression of what I’m campaigning for”

Damian Collins MP

“The cleanest way to look at that is deep fake films. We’ve got a film which we know is totally fake, we know it’s a lie, yet it’s been pushed out by networks of accounts to make it look as if it’s the mainstream opinion. We need a mechanism to go to companies and say ‘you should be doing something about this content’. And that’s not about suppressing freedom of speech, people’s individual opinions, that’s saying it’s not right that a bogus organisation should be able to hijack the power of social media to spread lies at scale to pollute the public well so people find it difficult to distinguish between what is true and what is false. 

“There are children dying and who have died of measles because they weren’t vaccinated and I think that trend has come through anti-vaxxer messages prevailing through social media.” 

Mr Collins gave the example of a recent deep fake film doing the rounds on social media which had been deliberately slowed down to make it look as if Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, was incapable of doing her job by giving the impression that her speech was slurred. While YouTube agree to remove the video, Facebook said it wouldn’t.

For Mr Collins, this darker side of social media will “only get worse unless we act”.

In February, the DCMS Committee he chairs published its final report into disinformation and fake news, making a number of recommendations to the Government about how to stem the influence of dark ads and make the UK’s electoral laws fit for purpose in the digital age. Whether any of these will be implemented by Boris Johnson’s administration remains to be seen. 

“Some of the reports looking at the 2016 election cycle in America said the amount of inauthentic fake news being shared by people on Facebook was actually greater than the legitimate sources of news,” Mr Collins said. “The top 20 fake news stories had a bigger audience than the top 20 real ones.

“We’ve seen studies showing that people find it very difficult based on face value to pick a false story from a real one. We see evidence of, not just networks of groups being run by people and we don’t know who they are, but foreign actors and Russian state actors being involved in elections too. 


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“We saw around major news stories like the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury a large number of false stories being boosted and promoted using large sums of money by Russian news agencies as well, just to try and create uncertainty, confusion, make it difficult for people to know what’s going on.

“And in the near future, we look at the advent of augmented reality… By the time we get into elections in the next two or three years, these sorts of interferences will be common… Films of politicians like me speaking at an event like this saying things I never said to deliberately create a false impression of what I’m campaigning for.

“We’re going to need the technology companies to step up to the plate and act against inauthentic content, but what we need as well is to put our own house in order.”

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