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Are new laws the way to stop the spread of ‘fake news’?

Collins English Dictionary describes ‘fake news’ as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. By now, we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing or hearing about fake news, especially on social media, but it’s not always easy to tell the real from the fake. Now it’s been said that the volume of misinformation on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, is “crowding out” real news, plunging democracy “into crisis” as voters are being manipulated by campaigns full of hate-fuelled disinformation.

Amidst these concerns, and those regarding the mass collection of personal data by companies like Cambridge Analytica, MPs have stated that we need new laws to tackle this growing problem. Tech and social media giants, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been accused of acting irresponsibly with the collection of users’ data, with MPs calling for transparency and liability. Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Tom Watson, supports this action, stating the “integrity of our democracy is vital and must be defended.”

Tech and social media giants, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter have been accused of acting irresponsibly with the collection of users’ data, with MPs calling for transparency and liability

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) warns that users’ behaviour is being “modified and changed” at the hands of social media companies. An inquiry conducted by the committee found that social media companies “tried to frustrate scrutiny” and provided unclear and obscure answers, with key figures failing to give evidence of transparency. DCMS calls for a new category of tech company to be introduced, to fill the gap between producer and platform that social media companies currently fall between, in the hope that this will force them to be more responsible with their data, and take action against harmful and illegal content.

Damian Collins, chair of DCMS, said that despite concerns being raised about Facebook’s usage of data, it was still made easy for developers to scrape personal information from users and utilise it elsewhere without consent. “Data crimes are real crimes, with real victims. This is a watershed moment in terms of people realising they themselves are the product, not just the user of a free service. Their rights over their data must be protected,” he added.

DCMS calls for a new category of tech company to be introduced, to fill the gap between producer and platform that social media companies currently fall between

However, this task may be more difficult than anticipated. Whilst it can be said that social media sites have a responsibility to monitor their content, by removing fake news it could be argued that this is a form of censorship of free speech. Furthermore, patrolling social media sites for fake news would be a time-consuming and costly task. Fake news has been in the media a lot recently, especially regarding the political adventures of one Donald J. Trump, but currently, we can only wonder how broad the net could be cast in these proposed fake news patrols. Just for politics? Other social issues? Fake science? Clear distinctions would have to be made to clarify what counts as fake news, and as such is looking to be a more complex task than holding social media companies to account over data collection.

It’s expected that the government will release a White Paper later this year, containing proposals for laws to make social media and the internet ‘safer’.

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