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Government Pressures Social Media Giants To Tackle Misinformation Ahead Of General Election

Saqib Bhatti was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy in November (Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

9 min read

The government is reconvening social media companies in an attempt to tackle misinformation ahead of the next general election, as the technology minister insists it will only be possible to do “everything we can” to protect democracy with the cooperation of the biggest online platforms.

Conservative MP Saqib Bhatti told The House that he's finding “every aspect” of his new role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Tech and the Digital Economy “fascinating” as he gets to grips with the portfolio. 

“I’m really enjoying it; I’m letting my inner tech geek come out,” he said.

Having been appointed to his first ministerial role in November, Bhatti defined his job as ensuring the United Kingdom’s government has “got it right” in its approach to the country’s critical technologies. And just so he and his staff do not forget them, the five technologies are listed in large writing on a handy whiteboard in Bhatti’s office: artificial intelligence, engineering biology, future telecommunications, semiconductors, and quantum technologies.

Perhaps the most pressing item on the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to-do list though is leading the charge against misinformation and disinformation, as the UK is braced for a general election by the end of this year – and across the world, more people will be casting votes in elections than in any other year in history.

John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare and the UK’s former anti-corruption champion, recently told PoliticsHome he believes 2024 will be the “acid test” for whether or not democracies can “protect the quality of their political debate and their free speech”.

The challenges are clear; the solutions less so. Bhatti insisted the UK government will do “everything we can” to protect democracy, but explains this will only be achievable with the co-operation of the top social media platforms.

In October, Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, hosted a roundtable with the UK leaders of social media companies Google, Meta, X, TikTok and Snapchat to discuss the spread of antisemitism, violent content, and misinformation following the Hamas attack on Israel. Bhatti has now told The House that this kind of intervention may be needed again in the context of election misinformation.

“I’m not afraid to reconvene them to make sure we are on the front foot on these issues, especially with an election around the corner,” he said.

PoliticsHome understands this process has already begun, with DSIT gathering social media companies together last week to find out more about what each major platform is doing to tackle misinformation being spread by users. A government source said that while each platform was taking some measures, they were all markedly different in their approach.

The Home Office is also organising its own meetings with technology giants, with Home Secretary James Cleverly set to meet officials from firms including Apple, Google, Meta and X in San Francisco and New York this week. He will discuss plans to work together on tackling misinformation and digital fraud and crime.

The government will continue to meet with the firms regularly to understand where the gaps are and encourage the firms to learn and adopt approaches from each other.

Saqib Bhatti
Saqib Bhatti said the government was working on a "mechanism" to mitigate the risk of online misinformation (Louise Haywood-Schiefer)

Bhatti is part of the Defending Democracy Taskforce set up in 2022 and now chaired by security minister, Tom Tugendhat. DSIT also holds responsibility for the National Security Online Information Team, formerly known as the Counter-Disinformation Unit and renamed in order to focus primarily on misinformation spread by foreign states.

“There’s a national security element to this,” Bhatti confirmed. “It is my belief this is going to be a conversation where, if misinformation occurs, we are going to have to have lines of communication across the piece… What that looks like, of course, we’ll be talking about and deciding how to publicise as appropriate.”

For now, Bhatti is optimistic: “I’m confident we can come up with a mechanism to help mitigate the risk of misinformation in elections. I think everyone will have a role to play in that.”

According to the tech minister, “everyone” includes the platforms which themselves play host to much of the most damaging misinformation and disinformation".

“I think social media companies and businesses as a whole have a responsibility to be a force for good in society,” he said.

“They don’t always have to wait for government to knock on the door and say ‘this is what you have to do’; I think they can do the right thing without us having to do that.”

In autumn last year, the European Union warned that X, formerly Twitter, was the biggest source of disinformation and urged its owner, billionaire Elon Musk, to do more to combat the deluge of false information. The speed at which disinformation spreads on the platform has been just one reason why many have chosen to abandon it and try other sites.

Bhatti, however, has chosen to remain. “That’s going to be a decision for the politicians individually,” he said. “But for me, I do use it. And you know, I was quite optimistic when Elon Musk came to take over… I thought he raised some important points, not least about fake accounts.”

When it comes to tackling misinformation, one of the biggest challenges is also one of the UK’s self-defined “critical technologies”: artificial intelligence (AI). Having hosted a world-first AI safety summit in November, the UK government wants to be seen as a global leader in understanding and identifying the risks and challenges that come with rapidly developing AI technologies.

But with a general election and local and mayoral elections around the corner, AI-generated content could pose a threat to both the reliability of information and how much the public can trust the campaigns delivered by each party.

“Public trust is huge in this conversation; it’s one of the things at the forefront of my mind when I’m talking about AI,” Bhatti said. “Because if you lose public trust, you lose everything on this.”

The government published its long-awaited response to the AI white paper earlier this month, in which it confirmed the government's ongoing confidence in its approach, but recognised that the UK – and other jurisdictions around the world – will need binding measures further down the road to ensure compliance with regulations. The UK has, so far, resisted calls to create a tougher regulatory regime.

Ahead of the summit last November, more than 100 civil society organisations from across the UK and world signed an open letter to Sunak branding the AI summit as “a missed opportunity” to engage with wider society on AI.

Michelle Donelan at the AI Safety Summit
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan lauded the AI safety summit as a success (Alamy)

Bhatti was keen to dispel that narrative and will be hosting roundtables with civil society in the coming weeks before the government’s response is made public.

“I always believe that, in life, diversity of thought is a huge thing and I think with AI, that will be important as well. To counter bias risk in AI models, for example, it’s going to be huge. So my door is absolutely open, as is the department’s,” he added. 

Bhatti repeatedly outlined the balance he seeks to strike between harms and opportunities presented by technology. With two young boys of his own, he now also has the added concern of being a parent looking out for the safety of his children online.

The tech minister lauded the recent Online Safety Act as a crucial step forward in reducing online harms, but admitted that he still intends to closely monitor his own children’s online activities when they are older.

“Even if the regulation’s there, I think for parents it’s their choice how they want to deal with their children,” he said. “I probably will monitor what they do on social media, but I won’t shy away from letting them go on there. It’s a different place to where I was when I was growing up; it’s a key part of our lives.”

Bhatti was also quick to point out the positives: “We should never forget that the internet and social media have done great things for society. It has pushed society forward.

“The challenge and the balance that I have to achieve as a minister responsible is to try to make sure we capture that and protect people from the risks.”

But, just as with misinformation and the threats of AI, Bhatti insisted it does not only rest on his shoulders.

“Social media companies don’t have to wait to implement what’s in the Online Safety Act,” he said. “It’s one of those things that I’m not afraid to call them out on if need be; actually there’s an opportunity to do the right thing and get on with it. And I would always encourage them to do so.”

The Online Safety Act passed into law in 2023 after years of delays, but a number of figures who sought to shape the legislation fear that “huge gaps” remain in the law to make the internet a safer place, including the extent of power that still lies with social media firms over online content, and the extent to which regulators will have the capacity and resources to follow through on the legislation.

Ofcom, the regulator responsible for carrying out much of the powers in the Online Safety Act, is currently carrying out consultations around child safety and pornography.

“It’s very, very clear that when it comes to user-to-user generated content, we are really leading the charge on that. I think it’s actually too early, when I listen to the naysayers, for them to try to shoot this down,” Bhatti said.

As part of the leadership of a newly created department, much of Bhatti’s role focuses on the UK’s potential for growth in key sectors – a great deal of which has not yet been realised.

Digital skills, therefore, are of paramount importance, and Bhatti promised there will be “really exciting things” coming down the road. “What I would say to anyone who’s got an interest in this is: watch this space. I’m very keen to make sure that whether you’re a young person or someone later on in their career wanting to change jobs, or whether you’re someone who is in retirement and wants to learn a new skill, the opportunities are there, but also they are easily accessible.”

This came with the usual caveat: “Government can’t do everything on this, it has to be a balance between the public and the private sector.”

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