'It was like Alice in Wonderland' - How the DCMS committee probe into fake news spiralled out of control
When the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee anounced its fake news inquiry last year, the MPs on the panel had no idea what they were getting themselves in for.
Still reeling from the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the hot topic on the lips of the bewildered political class as it tried to pull itself together and start 2017 afresh was ‘fake news’. The new US president had used the term to devastating effect during his election campaign as he dismissed any coverage that called him into question, while those on the other side of the debate pointed to clickbait factories in eastern Europe which pumped out falsehoods, and the spread of outlandish conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, such as a claim she was involved in a paedophile ring run out of a pizza restaurant.
In January 2017, MPs at Westminster thought it was time to do something. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, led by Tory Damian Collins, launched an investigation into fake news to help define the debate and seek answers. The inquiry aimed to develop an industry-standard definition of the phenomenon and consider how the social media companies - as well as the BBC - had played their part in its rise.
The Trump campaign and the Brexit vote had finally proved the power of the online space as a major campaigning tool. Millions of pounds were spent on emotive adverts that were seen only by select target groups - chosen automatically by massive hauls of personality data. Falsehoods were spread like wildfire across the web by true believers and bots, with the truth struggling to catch up. It was clearer than ever that electoral laws were a relic of the past attempting to police a brave new world, and the DCMS committee wanted to spearhead a much-needed update.
But almost two years later and the probe is still ongoing. Newspaper investigations into numerous aspects of the EU referendum, including on dark-ads, personal data use, campaign spending and foreign cash appear to have blown it onto a new course. The drama of Cambridge Analytica - a data mining and campaign firm that was forced to shut down over claims it illicitly acquired Facebook data and after its CEO was filmed boasting about using bribes and honey traps to discredit politicians - was the first offshoot to the probe. That was followed by the claim Vote Leave overspent in the EU referendum by sending £600,000 to a sister campaign to pay for dark ads on Facebook. And that was followed by the allegations - strenuously denied - that Arron Banks used foreign money to fund his Leave.EU outfit.
Each issue grabbed the attention of the committee as it was uncovered - usually by journalist Carole Cadwalladr and her colleagues at The Observer. A series of explosive committee hearings - with Cambridge Analytica boss Alex Nix and whistleblowers who used to work for him, bosses from Facebook and Twitter, and Leave.EU bigwigs Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore - gripped Westminster. The committee travelled to Washington and New York to gather evidence from social media bosses - and was pilloried by pro-Brexit critics who saw the trips as ego-boosting junkets.
Cadwalladr tells PoliticsHome the committee has “played a really important role in compelling these players to come and at least be asked questions even if they haven't always answered them”. She adds: “It's been very impressive watching the MPs get to grips with such a complex subject involving so many moving parts... There were very few journalists covering any of this and it felt like the subject was being brushed under the carpet but they've been able to shine a spotlight on to it and shown that it's a cross-party issue that should concern everyone."
With most of the subject matter still the stuff of hot dispute and even court action, and with every development bitterly fought through the filter of the Leave/Remain debate, the DCMS committee appears to have dug itself into a hole that will be tough to extract a concise conclusion from. MPs on the committee are well aware of the can of worms they have prised open. “One of the things we were all astonished by - and still are - is that when you look under a stone you discover another six stones that you need to suddenly look under,” one committee member tells PoliticsHome. Another says: “It’s like Alice in Wonderland. You go down this hole and it kind of unfolds in front of you. The more you dig the more there is to dig. It expands and you have to follow what you find. If you restrict yourself with a preconceived idea or rule then you are not doing your job."
It was when the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded that some on the committee realised the scope of the inquiry was limitless. “It was like a police investigation. it just got more and more complicated and more and more controversial.” For another MP, there was a “gradual realisation that it was getting bigger and bigger”.
But the committee has been cautious to rein in its ever-widening remit to avoid angering colleagues who might want to dip their fingers into the numerous issues being thrown up by the fake news beat. “We definitely had conversations early on about making sure that we don’t tread on the toes of other select committees,” one MP says. “We knew we didn’t want to end up in a clash with the Home Affairs Select Committee and we knew it wasn’t our job to clash with the Brexit Select Committee either.”
The committee is set for another box-office hearing tomorrow when it grills the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner on the latest developments in the saga. The former stunned Westminster last week when it announced it had passed its probe into Arron Banks to the National Crime Agency, which confirmed it had opened its own inquiry. The latter was instrumental in piling pressure on Cambridge Analytica to reveal its inner workings - before the firm quickly shut down. The question hanging over the DCMS committee is when will the questions ever end?
In July the committee said the final report will be in by the end of the year, while an interview Collins did with Wired magazine last month suggested the it would appear before November - a deadline that has now passed. One MP says there is no end in sight to the probe, while another suggests a conclusion should come by Christmas. More worryingly, a third has a middle way vision. “I don’t think we should stop,” they say. “There is a lot out there that needs to be addressed. I’m not going to say that whatever we conclude will be the finished article. This is something that is evolving so fast that it’s almost like the Severn Bridge. By the time you finish painting it you will be back at the start again.”
The other Pandora’s Box the committee has kept open is the Leave/Remain debate itself. Its members have come under fire from pro-Brexit campaigners who consider it a biased mission to overturn the referendum result. Every MP on the committee was a Remain voter in 2016 - which unsurprisingly raises eyebrows. But the members give the accusations short shrift. “We have to be objective and we are,” one insists. “You should hear the discussions we have in private. We are well aware of the dangers of being subjective as a group and my impression of my fellow committee members is that we are all endeavoring to be as objective as we can.” Another adds that they had no idea of the Brexit stance of their colleagues until Arron Banks himself pointed out their political persuasions during his appearance before the committee. “It’s typical of Arron Banks - a sort of conspiracy theorist,” they say. “It never even crossed my mind to inquire how my fellow committee members voted and we’ve never had a conversation about it. I think it’s a really cheap jibe.” Arron Banks was contacted for comment.
As the two-year anniversary of the inquiry’s announcement draws close, the MPs have at least concluded the gravity of the issue. Committee members are certain the final report will lead to changes in electoral laws - especially around online activity and campaign financing. The interim fake news report, released in July, recommended making social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter legally liable for the content users post; better media education for the public; more powers for the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner; and a public register and more regulation for political advertising online. At the time, Collins said the issues around fake news, data sharing, targeted ads and campaign financing amounted to “nothing less than a crisis in our democracy”.
The DCMS fake news probe might seem never ending, and might skirt the realms of conspiracy for some, but it attempts to get a hold over issues that have plagued society for generations - propaganda, misinformation and political funding - that will never stop developing. One committee member illustrates the journey and the horrors it can conclude with. “In the old days the village idiot in the corner would come out with crazy ideas,” they say. “Now that guy goes onto Facebook and he’s got access to 2.4 billion people. He’ll find a couple of thousand people there who will agree with him, whatever his ideas are, who validate them. It’s why you end up with Jo Cox getting shot. This is dangerous stuff.”