Zuckerberg should be legally compelled to answer on fake news – journalist

Carole Cadwalladr first disclosed Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook data harvesting in 2016

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should be legally compelled to appear before an international parliamentary committee and answer questions about in disinformation, fake news and micro-targeted political advertising, a leading investigative journalist has said.

Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr said Mr Zuckerberg had show contempt by refusing to appear before the committee.

Ms Cadwalladr first disclosed Cambridge Analytica’s secret harvesting of Facebook user data to target voters in the US presidential elections in 2016.

The international committee into fake news and disinformation, involving members of 12 parliaments, is holding its third meeting in Dublin on Thursday. The day-long hearings in the Seanad, chaired by Fine Gael TD Hildegarde Naughton, is examining how countries can deal with interference in democracies by non-State players. It is also examining how this can be done without preventing minority, human rights and pro-democracy groups in non-democratic countries from spreading their message.


“The contempt [Mark Zuckerberg] has shown to national representatives here is extraordinary,” Ms Cadwalladr told grand committee members drawn from nine countries.

“A single company [Facebook] has played a critical role in elections in so many countries but is not answerable. Mark Zuckerberg needs to be subpoenaed by the committee. He needs to be asked proper, considered and informed questions.”

Facilitating manipulation

Ms Cadwalladr was one of a number of journalists and experts who spoke during the first session of the hearings on Thursday morning.

Facebook has been the subject of extensive criticism for facilitating fake news and manipulation on its platform. It has also resisted following he lead of its rival, Twitter, which has banned all political advertising on its website, including micro-targeted ads.

The American investor and author Roger McNamee spoke of Facebook’s resistance to regulation and legislation. He said the company’s philosophy was that efficiency was the most important thing and State interventions like that led to friction. He said that while its artificial intelligence moderation system could pick up 98 per cent of false or abusive content, the 2 per cent that was left still comprised tens of millions of data sets.

‘Internet platforms have both exploited the weaknesses of democratic institutions and accelerated the weakening of them,” he said.

“Platforms have positioned themselves to replace democratic institutions, with initiatives like Sidewalk Labs’ Waterfront project in Toronto, Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency, Amazon’s efforts in law enforcement, and Microsoft’s services for governments.

“The success of internet platforms has produced harms to public health, democracy, privacy, and competition on a global basis, due in large part to algorithmic amplification of hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories and micro targeted advertising based on massive surveillance.”

Vast problem

Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council, focused his opening comments on electoral interference and large-scale disinformation.

“This is a vast and fast-moving problem set. According to the Oxford Internet Institute, 70 countries are now reported to be running organised social-media information operations, up from 48 last year.

“We do not have enough data to prove whether this stems from a rise in operations, a rise in reporting, or both; either way, it indicates a global phenomenon.

“Most of those operations are aimed at domestic audiences, but we must remember that the Russian operation that targeted the US from 2014 onwards also started out by targeting the domestic opposition.

“The evidence suggests that a state which has the capability to run domestic information operations can quickly pivot to external targets, if the political need is there. Russia did so in 2014. Saudi Arabia did so after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. China did so when the Hong Kong protests began.

“Nor is this limited to state actors: we also saw the British and American far right try to interfere in the French presidential election in 2017.”

Asked about how democracies could respond, he said cyber security investment, training and education was necessary as well as better contingency planning. He also said that cost deterrents needed to be applied operations or players that sold fake sites, or facilitated disinformation. He also said that efforts should be made to reduce polarisation on line.

Irish Times journalist Karlin Lillington told the grand committee said that the phenomenon collecting data to foment hate, outrage and fury had become a very disturbing reality in many parts of the world.

“Many of the proposed solutions and interventions – such as the suggestion that online anonymity be banned, or account registrations be tied to formal identity documents – only further these problems, rather than fix them.”

She focused her comments on human rights defenders who were often the most most seriously harmed because of online activity carried by the platforms of the global tech giants.

But she also pointed out the inherent problems with some suggested solutions. She said online platforms could be extremely important for pro-democracy activists and journalists, especially in the most repressive countries as they allowed anonymity and encryption to users.

Real-time bidding

Johnny Ryan, chief policy officer of Brave, spoke of the information that all users shared every time they accessed a new site or service online. He said that generated real-time bidding (RTB) which allowed companies maintain “intimate dossiers” on all users.

“It exposes every voter, every where. In other words, RTB is the source of the data that enables micro-targeted disinformation to data brokers.”

Mr Ryan said to tackle the problem would need confronting this business model head-on.

Eamon Ryan of the Green Party said that micro-targeting of online users could be dealt with at a national level bus asked about how could overall governance happen. Did it need to be at an EU or a UN level.

Mr Ryan said that in Europe it could take place in Brussels and in Dublin, where the Data Commissioner was responsible for regulating tech giants like Google.

Mr Nimmo pointed out that it was not just the Silicon Valley giants that needed to be tackled but also the platforms in non-democratic countries like China.

The representative from the UK House of Lords, David Puttnam, asked if there was a cast to establish a European cyber “SWAT team” that could move around from country to country to prevent such activities.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times