A Channel 4 PR boss has told Peers that fake news is “the most insidious” problem on the internet – more so than child abuse or cyber bullying.
Dan Brooke, chief marketing and communications officer at the broadcaster, told the House of Lords Communications Committee yesterday that fake news is “like a cancer to democracy’s blood supply”.
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Brooke appeared alongside Clare Sumner, director of policy at the BBC, and Magnus Brooke, director of policy and regulatory affairs at ITV, as they gave their broadcasters’ views on whether the internet should be regulated.
Channel 4’s Brooke (pictured with Sumner) spoke about the “dark sides” and “unintended consequences” of the internet, listing trolling, fraud, cyber bullying, hate speech, child and abuse and fake news.
“All of those things that I mentioned are of course grave concerns,” he told the committee, “but actually our belief is that the most insidious one is, in fact, fake news.
“Why? Because fake news just undermines the absolute fundamental of how we choose to organise ourselves as a society through the system of democracy.
“And information, we believe, is the lifeblood of democracy and I’m afraid that fake news is like a leukaemia. It is like a cancer to democracy’s blood supply.
“So it [regulation] is absolutely essential, and we applaud the fact that Parliament is looking into it and how to regulate it and how to regulate the internet better.”
Channel 4’s Brooke said a regulatory body dedicated to content regulation of the internet is “imperative”, whether it is set up entirely independently or as a specific unit within an existing regulator such as Ofcom.
ITV’s Brooke said the important thing would be to ensure it is well-resourced and funded as appropriate by a levy of the people it regulates, similar to Ofcom.
Self-regulation on the internet had proved “completely wanting”, Channel 4’s Brooke added.
“The only way of dealing with that is for an independent third party to impose a code of practice and to ensure that there is liability if those codes of practice aren’t met,” he said.
“It’s then up to the platforms to figure out what is the best way of policing their own platforms…
“All I would observe is, of the many things we’re told about ‘we’re trying this’ or ‘we’re trying that’, there’s still an enormous amount of opacity both about what those things are and what impact they have.”
Brooke added that asking websites, particularly social media platforms, to pre-approve all content that gets uploaded would be “totally unrealistic”.
“What is realistic though is to ask them to scan their platforms for content that is either illegal or harmful and to identify it and to take it down and to take it down properly and to ensure it is kept off the platform.
“That is not unreasonable.”
It revealed graphic content remaining on the site long after being flagged by users, thousands of posts going unmoderated beyond Facebook’s target of a 24-hour turnaround, and policies of allowing hate speech and racist content to remain online.
One moderator told the undercover reporter: “If you start censoring too much then people lose interest in the platform… It’s all about making money at the end of the day.”
Channel 4’s Brooke said the programme “clearly shows they [Facebook] are not capable of doing that [take-down moderation] off their own back on the basis of the evidence of that programme”.
“Maybe that’s a one-off but it didn’t seem like a one-off,” he said.
“So to us it’s absolutely clear a code of practice needs to be introduced and there needs to be clear liability for what happens if that code of practice is not met.
“They can’t introduce it themselves so it needs to be introduced by somebody else.”
Of Facebook’s moderation process, Brooke later added: “I don’t think they’re doing anything more than wandering around after Frankenstein’s monster with a tin full of sticking plasters.
“They’re dealing with whatever they need to deal with in order to stop PR problems, rather than fundamentally dealing with the problems.”
Sumner said it would also be important for consumers to be given more transparent mechanisms to complain about content and potentially then to appeal the decision.
The broadcasters agreed that websites such as Facebook and Google should be classed as publishers, rather than platforms, which are responsible for the content they host.
ITV’s Brooke pointed out that the sites “have been adept” at eliminating content such as pornography and child abuse images, which he said “indicates that actually they can, if they put their minds to it, be pretty effective”.
“But I think you do need to be realistic about continuing to have a platform of open access on which there’s no delay in uploading content to, and finding that balance is the trick,” he added.
In Germany tough new legislation came into effect in January requiring social media companies to remove “obviously illegal” extreme content and hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours or face fines up to €50m.
As a result, Germany now hosts one-sixth of Facebook’s global moderation team.
ITV’s Brooke said this showed how having an effective regulator “does ultimately concentrate the minds of commercial organisations”.
Asked whether the legislation threatens freedom of speech, Channel 4’s Brooke said: “No system is perfect.
“I would look at the British system for the regulation of television news where we have a situation where all our organisations rest, and particularly Channel 4, on being able to fulfil the concept of liberal free speech that we have in this society, and yet we also have the strictest form of regulation around television news and the by-product of all of that is we are still people’s number one source of news, television, and also we’re the most trusted.
“So that tells me – and there are lots of imperfections to the system of course, I’m sure it can be improved – but it shows to me that the concepts of free speech and regulation can co-exist and can co-exist successfully, just not perfectly.”
Picture: Parliament TV