Facebook must improve its response to fake news before the UK general election and start blocking or issuing warnings about material that contains falsehoods, the chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee has said.
Damian Collins said fake news could pose a threat to “the integrity of democracy” because large numbers of voters who relied on Facebook for their news could be misled.
The Conservative MP has held multiple meetings with Facebook in the UK and in the US over its fake news strategy, and he called on the company to start acting as strongly on the issue as it has pledged to act on child abuse images or copyright privacy.
“The risk is what happened in America,” Collins told the Guardian. “The top 20 fake news stories in the last three months of the election were shared more than the top 20 most shared stories that were true. The danger is, if for many people the main source of news is Facebook and if the news they get on Facebook is mostly fake news, they could be voting based on lies.”
Facebook has 32 million users in Britain. Collins said he was concerned about the speed with which Facebook responded to complaints about fake news, and he urged the company to start removing fake news “within hours”.
“Looking at some of the work that has been done so far, they don’t respond fast enough or at all to some of the user referrals they can get. They can spot quite quickly when something goes viral. They should then be able to check whether that story is true or not and, if it is fake, blocking it or alerting people to the fact that it is disputed. It can’t just be users referring the validity of the story. They [Facebook] have to make a judgment about whether a story is fake or not.”
However, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, declared this week: “We definitely don’t want to be the arbiter of the truth. We don’t think that’s appropriate for us.”
Responding to Collins, a spokesperson for Facebook said fake news was “an evolving challenge”.
“Improving news literacy is a global priority and false news runs counter to our mission to connect people with the stories that they find meaningful,” the spokesperson said. “We understand that we need to do our part to help people understand how to make decisions about which sources to trust.”
Facebook said it had updated its software in January to prevent hoax news from appearing in its “trending topics” section. It now takes into account not just the number of Facebook users posting about a topic but also the number of publishing organisations doing so, on the understanding that this is more likely to “reflect real-world events being covered by multiple news outlets”.
This month it trialled for three days a guide to help users spot fake news.
However, efforts to counter fake news are not as advanced in the UK as they are in Germany, France and the Netherlands, where Facebook is working with established media organisations to flag disputed stories in users’ newsfeeds.
Collins said he was not convinced the company had enough fact-checkers to check disputed material.
Political advertising on Facebook is expected to account for the largest part of the main parties’ ad spend in the coming six weeks. In 2015 the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook advertising.
“You can pay Facebook to target users with messaging and no one is monitoring what that messaging is,” said Collins. “The Electoral Commission can adjudicate on whether disinformation has been deliberately spread by a mainstream political party, but a lot of this campaign activity will go relatively unseen. Nobody at Facebook is checking what information is being put out there.
“And what if it is being done not by mainstream political parties but by proxy organisations using these tools to spread disinformation and to sway voters? You only need a few hundred people to be sharing a message a lot for it to spread incredibly quickly.”
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which advises the prime minister on ethics, has said fake news threatens to have “grave consequences for public attitudes, democratic processes and the conduct of public life”.
In a submission to the select committee last month, it said: “Without reassurance that the false and the genuine are being distinguished, there is a real risk of contamination, with public trust and confidence in public life declining further still.”