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DCMS Committee chair demands better answers from digital giants

Posted on: May 4, 2020 by Ian Murray

DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP has demanded further information from Twitter, Facebook and Google following evidence given by their representatives last week which he says “fell short of the standards we expect in terms of clarity and openness.”

The social media companies have been criticised by the MP ‘for an unwillingness to answer direct questions, relying on prepared answers and failing to provide statements of fact’.

The DCMS Chair said today: “The defensive position demonstrated by the representatives sent by Twitter, Facebook and Google was deeply unhelpful and failed in clarifying what they are doing to tackle the threat posed by record levels of misinformation and disinformation online about Covid-19, some of it deadly.

“The lack of information and detail in the answers we were given showed a disregard for the important process of scrutiny.

“We’re again asking the social media companies for information that was so woefully lacking in order to prove to Parliament and their users that their organisations are open and accountable for their behaviour.”

In a hearing on Thursday 30 April representatives of Twitter, Facebook and Google were asked about measures they have put in place to tackle an ‘infodemic’ of false narratives about Covid-19 as part of an ongoing inquiry into online harms and disinformation.

Chair Julian Knight has now written to those who gave evidence.

Katy Minshall, UK Head of Government, Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter, is asked for information on a further ten points, including:

  • Have you taken specific action against accounts of politicians, celebrities, influencers, etc, e.g. removing verified status or deleting accounts? What action is typically taken and are these accounts notified about why action is taken?

  • If verification is simply validation of identity, why does Twitter not roll out verification to all users who opt in (leaving the option of anonymity or pseudonymity for those who choose not to) to tackle disinformation, abuse and other harms?

Richard Earley, UK Public Policy Manager at Facebook, is asked to answer a further nine points, including:

  • What proportion of people who have seen (not just engaged with) content flagged by users or third party factcheckers as misinformation or disinformation on Facebook and Instagram are then alerted to this and provided with authoritative information? What is the total number of users that have received this alert since it was rolled out?

  • Given WhatsApp is an encrypted service, what plans does your company have to implement a reporting tool for content users receive within the app to you directly, which could allow your company to respond such as by withdrawing access to the app for repeat offenders or escalate reports and complaints to public authorities?

Alina Dimofte, Public Policy and Government Relations Manager at Google is asked to provide further information on a further nine questions including:

  • Regarding the London Real YouTube livestream of 5G conspiracy theories (the same interview was sanctioned by Ofcom for the radio broadcast by London Live), Google donated its video revenue to charity. However, the BBC reported that YouTube allowed London Real to keep its Super Chat revenue raised whilst the video was online. Can you clarify whether this was the case, and if so, why?

  • On 23 April, the US President asked the Coronavirus Response Coordinator to test exposure to ultraviolet light and injections of disinfectant on patients. The White House streams its daily briefings to YouTube. Would YouTube therefore take action against the White House’s video if the claims were streamed unchallenged, given YouTube’s statement that it will ban conspiracy theories from the site?