A new UK 108-page report on “disinformation and fake news” online strongly reprimands Facebook for its ongoing misuse of personal data — but also casually promotes unprecedented levels of political censorship on social media.
The report, which is the culmination of an 18-month investigation by a UK parliamentary committee, lambastes Facebook over its failure to protect its users’ data and accuses it of deliberate breaches of privacy and anti-competition laws. It offers numerous examples of Facebook sins, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw the shady firm mine the personal data of 50 million users without permission.
The report also accuses CEO Mark Zuckerberg of showing “contempt” towards the UK parliament for refusing three requests to appear before the committee and admonishes Facebook for behaving like a “digital gangster.”
Despite its wide-ranging criticisms, however, it is immediately evident that the overarching goal of the report appears to be to force Facebook to engage in censorship to the benefit of Western governments. It focuses heavily on “malign forces” posting content which is intended to cause “disruption and confusion” online. Lest there be any confusion about the identity of those malign forces, the word “Russian” is used 51 times in the report.
While the authors claim to be interested in ensuring a “plurality of voices” online, they are extremely quick to resort to forms of censorship as a solution to the existence of content that does not adhere to certain approved narratives.
There have been multiple examples in recent months of Facebook willingly and enthusiastically working in conjunction with US government-funded think tanks to target content critical of the US government, including its temporary removal of the English-language page belonging to Telesur, a Venezuela-based outlet which questions US policy in Latin America.
Facebook’s removal of that page happened weeks after it partnered with the US government-funded Atlantic Council to combat “inauthentic” content online.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that US government funded think tanks prompted CNN to pressure @facebook to suspend @IntheNow_tweet at a time when alternative outlets like In The Now are the only platforms challenging the US regime change war on Venezuela.
— Rania Khalek (@RaniaKhalek) February 18, 2019
The report admits that while it’s impossible to completely rid the internet of this politically inconvenient content, governments must focus on “the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere” so that citizens “know the source” of information.
Facebook’s recent suspension of pages partly owned by RT video agency Ruptly (purportedly due to their failure to prominently disclose its funding) would surely please the UK committee. The problem is, these new transparency rules are being arbitrarily applied to pages publishing content critical of Western governments, while content funded by those governments so far is subject to no such oversight.
Not surprised that @RFERL, the old CIA spinoff, is not transparent about its US government funding on its Facebook page. But something tells me that Facebook won’t be giving it the same treatment…
Hint: Both Facebook and @RFERL are instruments of American imperial power. pic.twitter.com/h64nIEQI3o
— Yasha Levine (@yashalevine) February 16, 2019
Today @CNN reported that @IntheNow_tweet doesn’t disclose its financial backing from @Ruptly, an @RT_com company. Looking forward to CNN requiring former generals on the channel’s programming disclosing what defense contractors they work for as they advocate for war.
— Eoin Higgins (@EoinHiggins_) February 17, 2019
Further proving that the (thinly veiled) intent of the report is censorship of foreign (i.e., Russian) media, the report praises a French law which allows the French national broadcasting agency “to suspend television channels controlled by or under the influence of a foreign state” if they disseminate “false” information.
The British report has some glaring flaws and inconsistencies, including its use of the New Knowledge cybersecurity firm as a credible source of information on Russian influence online, despite the fact that it was recently exposed by the New York Times for faking a Russian disinformation campaign in order to influence a local US election. Nonetheless, the report describes New Knowledge as an “information integrity company.”
It also praises NewsGuard, an app with deep ties to the US government, which applies trust ratings to news websites. As RT has documented before, however, NewsGuard applies its criteria selectively and exhibits clear bias against content critical of US policies. It is also lobbying to have its ratings installed by default on computers in schools and universities around the US — and even to have them installed by default on smartphones.
Ironically, the report criticizes people for giving credence to information which “reinforces their views” while dismissing content which they do not agree with as “fake news.”
Russian influence, or online democracy?
The report also takes a look at the “influence” Russian media may have had on the 2016 Brexit referendum, specifically outlets like RT and Sputnik. In an admission which is unintentionally quite funny, the report states that articles which had the “heaviest anti-EU bias” are the ones that went “most viral” online during the campaign.
Of course, by highlighting the fact that so many people were enthusiastically sharing content critical of the EU, the report inadvertently concedes that anti-EU sentiment was widespread, rather than some kind of evil plot by Russia to “sow discord” in the West.
Having Facebook decide that it’s OK to work for some governments but not others while disseminating political messaging puts Silicon Valley in the position of supreme ruler over our discourse & only the slavish & most authoritarian people would want that https://t.co/OyElNWwoue
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 16, 2019
The report also notes, however, that Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright MP admitted that he has seen no convincing evidence that Russian interference has had any “material impact” on how people choose to vote. Similarly, in the US, little evidence has been presented to suggest that so-called Russian online influence had any impact whatsoever on the outcome of the 2016 election.
Nonetheless, the report suggests that the UK government should launch new investigations into past elections, including the Brexit referendum and the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 to dig for elusive evidence of Russian interference.
Say goodbye to ‘harmful’ content
To ensure that social media companies comply with all its various demands, the report recommends that “a new category of tech company is formulated” which tightens their liabilities and would see those companies assume legal liability for content identified as “harmful.” It also advocates the establishment of a “compulsory Code of Ethics” setting out exactly what constitutes harmful content.
The British government should also “explore the feasibility” of adopting a UK version of the US Foreign Agents and Registration Act (FARA), it says. FARA requires persons acting “as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity” to disclose this information publicly. Ironically, a similar ‘foreign agents’ law in Russia was heavily criticized by Western media and politicians for targeting dissenting voices.
US government-funded outlets like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) both wrote reports critical of the law, with VOA even suggesting it had “echoes of Stalin-era denunciations” of dissidents. No such outrage emerged from those outlets when RT was forced to register as a “foreign agent” in the US last year.
NEW: UK is being urged to draft law to force Brits who work for foreign powers such as Russia to register their activities.@IoWBobSeely is leading push. Security services are understood to be keen on a UK version of Foreign Agents Registration Act in US https://t.co/s2iOtDnnCb
— Deborah Haynes (@haynesdeborah) February 12, 2019
Finally, the report suggests that companies like Facebook should also be required to finance digital literacy learning as “the fourth pillar of education” alongside reading, writing and math.
If this report is anything to go by, there is no doubt that learning to identify (and ignore) content critical of Western governments would be a major element of such “digital literacy” courses.
Think your friends would be interested? Share this story!
Subscribe to RT newsletter to get stories the mainstream media won’t tell you.