Tech firms criticised for 'lack of answers' on Covid-19 disinformation

MPs say tech firms have failed to explain how they are tackling false information

MPs have berated leading tech firms for failing to answer questions about taking responsibility for disinformation in the coronavirus pandemic, accusing the companies of giving vague, preprepared answers.

Representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter appeared in front of a Commons select committee but struggled to give satisfactory responses to politicians, who wanted to know what they were doing to combat issues such as false claims linking 5G to the pandemic.

In one unusual exchange, Facebook’s UK public policy manager, Richard Earley, was repeatedly asked by Labour’s Kevin Brennan about his seniority within the global Facebook team, and whether he had ever met the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

“I have seen him, I haven’t personally met him,” said Earley, who also said he had not met Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister who now works as Facebook’s global policy chief.

Zuckerberg has refused to appear in front of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, resulting in a formal summons from parliament. The Facebook boss has ignored the demand without facing any punishment – and has since stayed away from the UK – although Earley insisted the company took the work of the committee seriously.

Earley was criticised for not being able to confirm the number of content moderators the firm currently had reviewing explicit material. He said Facebook had taken steps to “minimise any negative impact on our ability to review content” during the pandemic, including moving responsibility for the most serious content review subjects – such as child abuse material and self-harm content – to its available full-time employees, and putting in place systems that allowed other contracted moderators to work from home.

“We’ve also had a large number of employees who don’t even review content in their daily roles volunteering to step forward and help make sure we did not see significant negative impacts on that queue,” he said.

But when pressed by the committee on whether Facebook had the same number of moderators working as before the pandemic, or fewer, Earley said he was unable to answer because the situation was changing each day.

Twitter’s UK head of government, public policy and philanthropy, Katy Minshall, was asked directly whether she would be removing potentially damaging tweets by Donald Trump.

“We have taken action on tweets that break our rules, that absolutely includes world leaders. If any tweet breaks the rules, we will take appropriate action,” she said.

Asked again if Twitter had ever reduced the reach of Trump’s tweets, Minshall said the company had taken action against other world leaders and was willing to mark politicians’ tweets as potentially harmful if they overstepped the mark.

“I didn’t actually detect an answer there,” said the committee chairman, Julian Knight.

Earlier in the hearing Stacie Hoffmann, a cybersecurity expert from Oxford Information Labs, a cyberintelligence company, said the coronavirus pandemic showed that social networks were capable of removing damaging content when they really wanted to.

She suggested this exposed the flaw in their previous focus on finding technical solutions to removing material: “They didn’t want to talk about human content moderation.”

Knight said all of the representatives had failed to provide “genuine, hard information on how you are specifically going about tackling Covid disinformation”, meaning his committee would be asking them to provide further evidence in writing.

“We will be writing to all the organisations and frankly we will be expressing our displeasure at the quality of the answers – well, a lack of answers – that we’ve received today and will be seeking further clarity,” he said.

Contributor

Jim Waterson

The GuardianTramp

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