Parliamentarians from across the world will converge on Dublin on Thursday to questions tech giants and regulators on how to address disinformation and fake news on online platforms.
The International Grand Committee on Disinformation and “Fake News” will hold a day-long hearing in the Seanad on how to deal with hate speech, harmful content and electoral interference online. Parliamentarians and Ministers from nine countries will be involved and will try to agree a set of principles for regulating harmful content, hate speech and electoral interference. They comprise national politicians from the US, Singapore, Australia, the UK, Sweden, Argentina, Georgia, Finland and Estonia.
The concept of “fake news” came to prominence during the 2016 presidential election in the US and since then authorities across the world have struggled to contain disinformation from non-State and foreign players, including terrorist organisations.
The day-long session will be chaired by Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, who is a member of the international grand committee along with Eamon Ryan of the Green Party and James Lawless of Fianna Fáil.
Among the speakers are Facebook’s head of global policy management and counterterrorism, Monika Bickert, as well as Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr who exposed the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
Marco Pancini, director of public policy at Google and YouTube will contribute.
This is the third meeting of the international grand committee which has already held sessions in Westminster and Ottawa in Canada. At earlier hearings, Facebook was berated for the manner in which it shared personal data of users on its platform, which was then used to spread disinformation and false news by non-State players. The parliamentarians also sharply criticised Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for not taking up an invitation to attend. The tech giant has consistently portrayed itself as a platform rather than a publisher, claiming it does not carry the same responsibilities to verify the truth or authority of content on its sites.
A scathing report published soon after the first session portrayed the new media giants as “digital gangsters”.
The meeting comes a week after Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced it would ban all political ads from its platform. The social media giant has said it has done so to respond to the difficulties in correcting disinformation and false news. The move has put pressure on the biggest player, Facebook, which allows such ads on its platform, to follow suit.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week said he had “mixed feelings” about Twitter’s move.
“I have mixed feelings about the decision but it is one for them. I wouldn’t be encouraging them and I wouldn’t be encouraging anyone to follow suit,” he said.
“It could start online and then why not go further? Why not ban political ads from newspapers and billboards as well? Would that really be a good thing?”
In the interim, the Cabinet this week decided to draft new legislation to regulate paid political advertising online. The proposed new rules would require all political parties to clearly label and identify ads and provide clear links to factual information backing claims on the ads. The new rules would go some way to address the issues. There are no provisions in Irish law on online advertising at present, a situation the Government accepts is a “lacuna”.
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton will also address the hearing and outline Ireland’s legislative response to such matters.
Speakers at the day-long session also include the Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon, who has responsibility for overseeing use of data by the European operations of many of the global tech giants; and Paolo Cesarini, who is head of the European Commission’s unit which has been tackling online disinformation.
Ms Naughten has said the digital and social media environments were complicated. Tackling disinformation by requiring transparency and clear information worked well against non-State players but could have adverse and unforeseen consequences for minorities and groups who needed anonymity and a certain level of secrecy to highlight suppression and injustice in certain countries.
“As parliamentarians we need to continue talking with one another to have discussions around communication and freedom of speech,” said Ms Naughton. “These are big issues for us and will need protection for minority groups and those who are repressed.
“They need that avenue of social media and need anonymity to protect them. At the same time, others use anonymity for the less legitimate reasons. These conflicting rights need to be balanced,” she added.
She said it was very important for the democratic process that political parties got their message out as long as it was done in a transparent and way with a truthful and factual basis.