WASHINGTON — British MPs will clash with Big Tech during a hearing on fake news Thursday and, like everything else in British politics, Brexit will be front and center.
The cross-party group of MPs arrived in Washington this week to grill executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google on fake news and its impact on British politics.
The group is especially interested in the activity of Russian-linked accounts promoting Brexit ahead of the referendum in 2016.
Britain has a “right to know whether a foreign agency, maybe controlled by foreign governments, are using social media to try and influence opinion in this country,” Damian Collins, the Conservative MP leading the probe, told POLITICO before the trip to Washington. He’s said previously that Russia was “using information as a weapon of war,” “not just anecdotally but in a systematic way.”
But as Collins’ group headed to the U.S., Brexiteers scrambled to downplay the importance of fake news and Russian influence on the Brexit referendum.
“Things are not going the way of the liberals’ world view, and they cannot accept that the people — the workers, even — are abandoning their ideology” — Edward Leigh, Brexiteer Tory MP
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage said MPs were “whistling in the wind” in their quest for information. Russian involvement would be “minimal at most,” he said, adding that the committee was “not going to find anything.”
Other Brexiteers echoed Farage. While acknowledging that fake news was a “growing issue” and not commenting directly on the committee’s work, Richard Bacon, a Conservative MP who campaigned for Leave, rejected the idea that Russian influence had any role in the 2016 referendum result.
Russian-linked accounts on social media had not “moved the tectonic plates in a direction they otherwise would not have moved in,” he said, adding: “I don’t think they [the Remain campaign] primarily lost because of Vladimir Putin.”
Edward Leigh, another Brexit-backing Conservative MP, called for a “sense of proportion” in a recent House of Commons debate on Russian interference in U.K. politics. An Oxford Internet Institute study has found that Russian Twitter accounts contributed relatively little to the Brexit conversation and were not widely shared on the platform, he told MPs.
“The paranoid tendency to see a red under every bed is very much alive, albeit changed, and there is an explanation for such paranoia,” he said. “Things are not going the way of the liberals’ world view, and they cannot accept that the people — the workers, even — are abandoning their ideology, presuming that they ever agreed with it in the first place.”
For Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads a group of Brexiteer backbench MPs, “false news” is old news. Asked whether he supported the inquiry he responded with a picture of a privy council proclamation from the national archives against the spreading of false news, dating back to 1688.
“It is no less serious for its antiquity,” he said.
Even so, Brexiteers are in uncharted territory. Facebook announced last month that it would investigate whether groups of accounts were coordinating posts around the Brexit referendum, and Twitter is also under pressure to investigate.
In November, data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California in Berkeley said that Russian Twitter accounts had posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours around the referendum.
Another study, by the University of London, shows that Twitter bots had posted almost 65,000 messages in a four-week period surrounding the referendum. The content showed a “clear slant towards the Leave campaign,” the study says.
In France and Germany, governments are legislating against online misinformation, while other states have set up agencies to monitor platforms.
So far, the U.K. government has backed the digital committee’s efforts, publicly and privately. However, Culture Secretary Matthew Hancock in December dismissed the idea that interference may have swung the election one way or another.