WASHINGTON — British lawmakers did not like what they heard when they traveled to Washington to quiz technology executives on “fake news” this week.
“The patience of policymakers is running out,” the chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, Damian Collins, told a press conference following a day of hearings with U.S. executives from tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google.
Collins said firms needed to have a “sense of compulsory obligation” to force them to deal with the “social consequences” of their businesses, as their investment in dealing with “bad content” was “still very small.”
Questioned about the responsibility of social media companies to remove disinformation posted on their platforms, Nick Pickles, Twitter’s U.K. public policy director, was adamant they were “not the arbiters of truth.” Journalists, citizens and activists corrected information on Twitter, he said.
But Labour MP Julie Elliott, another member of the committee who spoke at the close-of-day press conference, said Twitter “didn’t get it,” adding she felt firms thought “they had no responsibility for what was on their platform, which I’m afraid I don’t agree with.”
The cross-party group of MPs flew more than 3,000 miles as part of a U.K. parliamentary inquiry into the dissemination of untrue stories online. They are also probing the extent of Russian influence in Britain’s 2016 EU referendum.
Following repeated requests for information after academic studies suggested Russia-linked bots had been posting about the Brexit vote, Pickles told MPs on Thursday Twitter had found a “small” number of active Russia-linked accounts during the referendum campaign as part of a “broader investigation” into activity on its platform.
Twitter found 49 accounts from the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency had posted 942 tweets, which were cumulatively retweeted 461 times and liked 637 times, Pickles said.
But Collins remained skeptical. His “instinct” would be that the number of Russian-linked Twitter accounts is “far higher than 49,” he told journalists.
YouTube’s global head of public policy, Juniper Downs, told the MPs its own investigation had found “no evidence” of interference in the Brexit vote, while Facebook said its probe would not be complete until the end of February.
Collins, who has previously raised the prospect of sanctions for inaction, said while he thinks technology firms understand they have to be seen to be acting over “bad content,” they were not investing enough.