MPs attack US technology companies over fake news


British MPs on Thursday attacked Facebook, Google and Twitter in Washington over what the parliamentarians regard as failures by the tech giants to fully investigate Russian interference in the Brexit referendum and 2017 election.

The Commons digital, culture, media and sport select committee held a special hearing in the US capital with the companies as part of an inquiry into fake news, after previously accusing the groups of not co-operating sufficiently in efforts to establish the extent of Russian manipulation of the EU referendum and 2017 election.

The move comes after Facebook’s revelation last year that 150m Americans saw political content published by Russian entities in the two years before the US presidential election in 2016.

MPs, unlike their US counterparts, do not have the power to compel information from US tech companies.

“You guys have all the information and we don’t have any of it and you won’t tell us what it is,” Ian Lucas, a Labour committee member told Twitter, in a charge he also levelled at Facebook.

He also argued that if Facebook was taking money for political advertising from abroad it would contravene British electoral law. “You are facilitating an illegal act,” he said at the hearing held at George Washington University.

Simon Milner, Facebook’s policy director for the UK, Middle East and Africa, said he had “never heard that analysis before”.

Mr Milner also said Facebook would deliver a second, broader report to the committee by the end of the month about Russia-linked posts before the Brexit referendum, but said it may not put the document into the public domain.

Damian Collins, Conservative chair of the committee, told Facebook it had failed to sufficiently investigate misuse of the social media platform.

He also told Twitter: “If you wanted to spread a lie … Twitter would be a pretty good way to do it.”

Nick Pickles, Twitter’s head of policy in the UK, said the company did not vet content on the platform for truth, and had no plans to do so.

‘You guys have all the information and we don’t have any of it and you won’t tell us what it is’ – British MPs quiz US tech executives in Washington © AFP

However, he highlighted how Twitter takes down or “challenges” 6.4m accounts on the platform every week. “We think we’re making progress,” he said.

In December, Facebook said in a letter to the committee that a Russia-linked troll farm that used the US company to target Americans in the presidential election was also active in the UK ahead of the Brexit referendum.

Facebook said accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency spent $0.97 for three advertisements in the days before the referendum, and that these ads appeared on about 200 news feeds in the UK before Britons voted to leave the EU.

But Mr Collins said at the time that Facebook had failed to answer questions he had put to Mark Zuckerberg, its chief executive.

Mr Collins also said in December that a letter from Twitter about Russian disinformation in the UK had been completely inadequate.

Twitter said at the time it had found one Russia-linked account that bought ads to manipulate British voters in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.

US tech companies are under the spotlight in the UK over a broad range of issues including fake news and their tax arrangements

Prime minister Theresa May last month announced the creation of a new unit to tackle state-sponsored misinformation in the UK.

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