OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE

HM Government – written evidence (DAD0034)

 

Introduction

 

The Government welcomes this important inquiry into democracy and digital technology. The internet and other new technologies have driven dramatic improvements to our economy and society. Equally, open democracy and free speech are cornerstones of British values in which robust debate is fundamental, but threats and other forms of abuse are unacceptable and must not be tolerated. To date, we have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes, including the 2016 EU Referendum. The Government takes any allegations of interference in UK democratic processes extremely seriously and remains vigilant against attempts to erode trust in our democratic processes and institutions. We will defend the UK from all forms of malign interference.

 

The Government has set up a Defending Democracy programme to pull together existing work and expertise from a number of government departments. This sets out to protect and secure UK democratic processes, systems and institutions; strengthen the integrity of UK elections, encourage respect for open, fair and safe democratic participation; and promote fact-based and open discourse, including online.

 

In April this year, the Government published the Online Harms White Paper. The Government will set out measures to protect against illegal harms and improve users’ online safety - and especially the safety of children.  We believe our proposals can lead towards a new, global approach for online safety that supports our democratic values, including freedom of speech, and promote a free, open and secure internet.

 

The Government is also taking action to help people attain the digital skills needed to fully participate and thrive in an increasingly digital world. This includes introducing digital literacy as a core part of the national curriculum and publishing a media literacy strategy, which includes measures to ensure users are more able to deal with mis- and disinformation. This will be published in the new year.

 

 

General

1. How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?

 

The internet is an enabler, allowing information to be more accessible, targeted, and travel faster and has had an overall positive effect in increasing engagement with democratic issues.

 

One of the major positives of an increasingly digital democratic landscape has been Individual Electoral Registration (IER). This was the main change introduced by the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 and has proved to be a significant success. Introduced in June 2014, IER was designed to make registering to vote easier, more secure and less open to fraud. Unlike the previous system, it means Government can prove electors are genuine, dramatically reducing the risk of electoral fraud. The Electoral Commission produced a number of reports on the implementation of IER. In particular, in July 2016, the Commission reported on the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers in Great Britain, following the end of the transition to IER. The Commission found that the accuracy of the electoral registers had increased by 4%, from 87% to 91% since the introduction of IER.

 

The Government’s Register to Vote Website has also proved to be a tremendous success and is considered an exemplar of public sector digital innovation. The IER Digital Service, which verifies both online and paper applications, has processed over 40 million applications to register to vote since June 2014, with over 75.8% of applications having been made online. User satisfaction rate with the online service is consistently over 90%.The effect of online registration has been transformative. For the 2017 General Election 93% of the 2.9 million applications submitted between the day the poll was announced and the registration deadline were made online. This resulted in a Parliamentary register of 46.8 million electors, the highest number we have seen.

 

However, we are aware that the advent of digital technology can have social consequences as well, bringing present challenges around transparency. Reports frequently use social media algorithms as an example of technology which has the potential to increase polarisation in public debate by only showing users content that aligns with their existing beliefs. The anonymity of social media is often also partially blamed for an increase in abuse online. Government recognises that it is vital to keep pace with rapid technological change to ensure that electoral law and our capabilities are fit for the digital age.

 

 

2. How have the design of algorithms used by social media platforms shaped democratic

debate? To what extent should there be greater accountability for the design of these algorithms?

 

Online Harms White Paper

As acknowledged in the Online Harms White Paper, social media platforms use algorithms which can lead to ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’ where a user is presented with only one type of content instead of seeing a range of voices and opinions. This can promote disinformation by ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree and can lead to a story being perceived as far more widely believed than it really is.

 

Though there is no evidence to suggest that social media algorithms have interfered in the outcome of UK democratic processes, the role of social media algorithms in disinformation is of concern to Government and we are exploring ways to address the issue of algorithms driving users to content that distorts the information landscape.  One of the proposals is that of an independent regulator. The regulator could have powers to require information from platforms, which could include information about the impact of algorithms in selecting content for users.

 

 

 

Digital journalism and the Cairncross review

Democratic debate has also been impacted by the news industry becoming an increasingly digital business. Search, social media and news aggregation platforms have become increasingly important for driving traffic to news websites. Some publishers have estimated that as much as 70% of their traffic comes from the dominant search and social media platforms. As news publishers become increasingly reliant on digital platforms for distribution of their content, so algorithms have come to play an increasingly central role in that distribution.

 

Dame Frances Cairncross addressed the role of algorithms in her report into the sustainability of high quality journalism in the UK.[1] She stated that algorithms are the biggest concern of the publishers in terms of their commercial relationship with the platforms. Algorithms determine how high or low on the page any particular article is ranked, yet those algorithms are opaque and closely guarded by the platforms, who rarely consult with the publishers about changes to those algorithms or give them sufficient notice when they do change.

 

Publishers also complain that they have to spend a lot of money on optimization to tailor their content in order to maximize their ranking by the algorithm, only for a change to be made which makes the expenditure and time spent wasted. Dame Frances gave the example of Facebook’s algorithm change in January 2018, in which Facebook changed their algorithm to favour ‘friends and family’ content over news content. It was estimated that news content on Facebook dropped from 5% of all content to 4%, which may only be 1% of all content on Facebook, but represents a 20% drop for news publishers, which is significant.

 

As a result of this central role that algorithms play, Dame Frances recommended that a code of conduct be implemented that regulates the commercial relationships between platforms and publishers. This code of conduct could address the over-reliance on algorithms by obliging the platforms to consult with the publishers prior to algorithm changes and to give publishers reasonable notice of such changes to allow them to better plan optimization strategies. The Government is now carefully considering the recommendations made by Dame Frances and will respond later in 2019.

 

Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation

To help Government understand the implications of data-driven technologies, DCMS established the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation in November 2018. The Centre will identify the measures needed to strengthen and improve the way data-driven technologies and AI are used. This will include advising on how Government can address potential gaps in the governance and accountability of these technologies, and promoting best practice. The Centre published its 2019/20 Work Programme and two-year Strategy in March 2019 setting out its priorities and how it will operate in undertaking its terms of reference.

 

The Centre’s 2019/20 Work Programme is focused on two major reviews into online targeting and algorithmic bias. The Online Targeting Review is investigating how data is used to shape people’s online environments via the personalisation and targeting of messages, content and services online. This review is considering the benefits and harms, practices, governance, public views and potential recommendations related to the customisation of online experience. The Centre has engaged with the public on their views on targeting practices as well as begun a programme of structured interviews with regulators to understand in greater detail the effectiveness of current oversight arrangements. The Centre published interim findings in July 2019 and is expected to publish its final recommendations to Government in December 2019.

 

 

Education

3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?

 

Media and digital literacy

Online media and digital literacy can equip users with the skills they need to spot dangers online, critically appraise information and take steps to keep themselves and others safe online. It can also have wider benefits, including for the functioning of democracy by giving users a better understanding of online content and enabling them to distinguish between facts and opinions online. In recent months, there have been several reports that recognise the importance of online media and digital literacy, calling for action at all levels.[2][3][4]

 

There has been significant work in this area, with several organisations in tech, media and civil society developing resources for use in school and at home, to equip children and young people with the skills to critically assess information and keep themselves safe online. For example, NewsWise is a free, cross-curricular news literacy project for 9-11 year olds across the UK. The project, a partnership between the Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust and the PSHE Association, officially launched in September 2018 and Google is funding its first year. The project aims to strengthen children’s critical thinking skills before they start using social media, and aims to deepen children and young people’s understanding of why and how the news is produced. In addition, BBC Own It, launching later in 2019, is a new wellbeing app aimed at children aged 8-13 receiving their first smartphone. The app is part of the BBC’s commitment to supporting young people in today’s changing media environment and follows the successful launch of the Own It website in 2018. While the Government welcomes these initiatives, we believe that there are notable gaps in provision and that adults need support too – especially as parents.

 

Industry and government have a shared responsibility to empower users to manage their online safety. A new regulator would have oversight of industry activity and spend in this area, and a responsibility to promote online media literacy. Ahead of the new regulator, the government is developing an online media literacy strategy to develop media literacy at all ages. The Government is currently consulting a broad range of stakeholders, including major digital, broadcast and news media organisations, the education sector, researchers and civil society, and we have recently published an Invitation to Tender for analysis into existing media literacy initiatives and accompanying evaluation. The strategy is expected to identify what additional activity is needed to make progress against key objectives, which may include ensuring that users can better deal with mis- and disinformation, including in relation to democratic processes and representation. The Government will publish its online media literacy strategy in the new year.

 

Action in schools

Clearly education plays an important role in equipping children with the knowledge, skills, and values that will prepare them to be responsible, engaged citizens in modern Britain. All schools have specific duties to promote the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC) of their pupils and to prepare them for the opportunities and responsibilities of adult life. Furthermore, we expect all schools and further education (FE) colleges to promote the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs. DfE has provided advice to schools and colleges on how to teach these values, including through classroom-based debates and through various aspects of the curriculum and school ethos.

 

Citizenship education is part of the national curriculum at key stages 3 and 4 and it is compulsory in maintained secondary schools. High quality citizenship education provides pupils with the knowledge to prepare them to play a full and active part in society as responsible citizens. Pupils are taught about democracy, government and how laws are made and upheld. Teaching should equip pupils to explore political and social issues, to debate, and to make reasoned arguments. Citizenship programmes of study also include opportunities for school- and community-based volunteering.

 

In terms of improving digital literacy, there are many opportunities across the curriculum to learn about these issues; in subjects such as English, History and Citizenship. The computer science curriculum, which was reformed in 2014, includes the fundamental knowledge that empowers pupils to make well-informed choices. It also covers the principles of e-safety, with progression in the content to reflect the different and escalating risks that young people face.

 

We are introducing new mandatory subjects of Relationships Education (for all primary pupils), Relationships and Sex Education (RSE, for all secondary pupils) and Health Education (for all pupils in primary and secondary state-funded schools). Pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data (including images) online, harmful content and contact, cyberbullying and where to get help and support for issues that occur online. The new subject includes extensive internet safety content, including the importance of rationing time spent online, how to be a discerning consumer of online information, age restrictions, trolling, bullying and how online information is targeted.

 

In June 2019, the DfE published a new non-statutory guidance, “Teaching online safety in schools”, which aims to support schools in teaching pupils how to stay safe online within new and existing school subjects, such as Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, Health Education, Citizenship and Computing.

 

Ofsted’s new education inspection framework, which came into effect in September, has a new stronger emphasis on ensuring schools provide a broad and rich curriculum for all their pupils. That means the full national curriculum, or in the case of academies, a curriculum similar in breadth and ambition. The new framework also includes a new separate graded judgement on pupils’ personal development. The personal development judgement focuses on the development of pupils’ character, their confidence, resilience, independence and knowledge. It includes a range of matters including pupils’ ability to recognise and respond to online and offline risks to their wellbeing; pupil’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development; relationships and sex education; and how the school prepares pupils for life in modern Britain. The handbook also sets the expectation that schools should be providing pupils with meaningful opportunities to understand how to be responsible, respectful citizens who contribute positively to society.

 

Building on the opportunities within the citizenship curriculum, many schools will offer additional opportunities for their pupils to undertake social action projects or volunteering – often working with national bodies or by creating their own links with local organisations or charities in their community.

 

DfE works closely with the National Citizen Service (NCS), which brings young people from different backgrounds together to work on local volunteering projects. Guidance for schools and colleges on 16 to 19 study programmes, published by DfE and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, encourages further education colleges to incorporate youth social action into study programmes alongside other work experience. It also encourages participation in the National Citizen Service which helps young people to contribute to their. The university sector helps to ensure that all students are given the opportunity to develop their thinking, and to debate ideas –essential skills in a modern, healthy democracy.

 

Improving understanding of democracy

As part of the 2018 Suffrage Centenary Programme the Government commissioned the Historical Association to develop a resource for secondary schools use in order to increase knowledge of the history of the suffrage movement.

Government wants schools to use that knowledge base to improve pupils’ understanding of UK democracy and how they can participate in our democratic processes. The resource is called Women's Suffrage: History and Citizenship Resources for Schools and is a fantastic comprehensive online interactive resource which includes films, articles and podcasts.

The Government has also launched the Democracy Ambassadors scheme, one of three projects aimed at young people which are part of the Government’s Suffrage Centenary Fund Programme. They were designed to raise awareness of democracy and our democratic systems with young people aged 13-16, particularly those who are more likely to be disengaged from democratic processes.

The objective of this scheme was to recruit young people across England and provide them with a training programme to equip them with the skills and knowledge to discuss with their peers the importance of democracy and how it operates. The Government grant funded Young Citizens to deliver this scheme and recruit 1,000 young people as Democracy Ambassadors across England.

The role of a Democracy Ambassador is to learn how democracy works in the UK, on both a local and national level, and to identify opportunities to share their knowledge with 100 young people from their peer group. They can engage with their peers in a variety of different ways, be it via social media, giving presentations or using games and quizzes.

However, the Government is clear that education about a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy does not stop at school.

 

Building digital skills

The Government recognises that digital skills are as important to employability and participation in society as English and maths. To address this, from 2020, alongside the existing legal entitlements to English and maths, we will introduce an entitlement to fully funded digital qualifications.  Adults with no or low digital skills will have the opportunity to undertake new digital qualifications free of charge.

 

The new publicly funded digital offer will comprise two qualification types - essential digital skills qualifications (EDSQs) and new digital functional skills qualifications (Digital FSQs), both based on new national standards for essential digital skills:

 

EDSQs are a new qualification type designed to meet the diverse needs of adults with no or low digital skills. EDSQs will have different objectives, reflecting different learning needs, motivations and starting points of adults with no or low digital skills.

 

Digital FSQs will replace FSQs in Information and Communication Technology and will meet the needs of adults wishing to achieve an employer recognised qualification certifying attainment of the full range of digital skills needed for work, life and further study.

 

DfE has recently consulted on proposed subject content for digital FSQs and will publish final subject content in autumn 2019. Ofqual has also recently consulted on their proposed approach for regulating Digital FSQs and will consult on detailed rules and guidance in due course.

 

In the interim, the Government will continue to support the provision of basic digital skills training for adults in colleges and community learning settings through the Adult Education Budget and other programmes. These include the Future Digital Inclusion programme delivered through the 3,000 strong Online Centres Network which has supported over 1.3 million over the last five years to engage with digital technology and develop their digital skills in community settings.
 

 

Online campaigning

4. Would greater transparency in the online spending and campaigning of political groups improve the electoral process in the UK by ensuring accountability, and if so what should this transparency look like?

 

The rules that govern the spending by campaigners at elections are vitally important in ensuring transparency for the public and a level playing field for campaigners.

 

The Government is pledging to do our part to regulate digital campaigning by making elections more transparent. As part of that, the Government has committed to implementing an imprints regime for digital election material. Our aim is to increase transparency and allow voters to see more information about who has produced election material. We will publish the technical proposals for this regime later this year.

 

The Government has also committed to consulting on measures to strengthen electoral integrity. The consultation may consider recommendations for actions Government could take to increase transparency on digital political advertising; close loopholes on foreign spending in elections; prevent shell companies from sidestepping current rules on political finance; and action to tackle foreign lobbying.

 

 

5. What effect does online targeted advertising have on the political process, and what effects could it have in the future? Should there be additional regulation of political advertising?

 

The Government recognises that a number of reports have raised concerns on the impact of targeted advertising on the political process. We are undertaking work to understand the implications of targeted advertising more broadly. As mentioned previously, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation’s Online Targeting Review is investigating how data is used to shape people’s online environments via the personalisation and targeting of messages, content and services online. This review is considering the benefits and harms, practices, governance, public views and potential recommendations related to the customisation of online experience. The Centre is expected to publish its final recommendations to Government in December 2019.

 

Additionally, in February 2019, the government announced its intention to conduct a review into how online advertising is regulated in the UK, assessing the economic and social challenges that are associated with it in the round. Though the Review will not specifically focus on political advertising, its aim is to look at cross-cutting challenges that arise from online advertising and how Government can ensure that our response to them is coherent, strategic, impactful, and future-proofed.

 

 

Privacy and anonymity

6. To what extent does increasing use of encrypted messaging and private groups present a challenge to the democratic process?

 

The UK Government is in favour of strong encryption: it is critical to protect UK citizens around the world from harm online, who use encryption to protect their data and communications. It can also serve a vital purpose in repressive states to protect journalists, human rights defenders and other vulnerable people from unlawful surveillance.

 

However, we are concerned where companies deliberately design their systems in a way that precludes any form of access to content, even in cases of the most serious crimes. This approach puts citizens and society at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to identify and respond to the most harmful content, including foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions.

 

Government expects online companies to comply promptly and cooperatively to legal authorisations for the disclosure of information about individual users, in order to prevent and detect serious crime and protect national security. We also expect companies to take action now to tackle harmful content or activity on their services. For those harms where there is a risk to national security or to the physical safety of children, the Government will work with law enforcement and other relevant bodies to produce interim codes of practice, which will be published later this year. Voluntary initiatives between government, industry and civil society are also promising in some areas, including on terrorism and CSEA.

 

Disinformation and misinformation spread through encrypted messaging presents a potential challenge to our democracy as it is harder to identify than disinformation on open groups and pages. This means that Government, political parties and civil society fact checkers are unable to identify and correct false narratives.

 

However steps can still be taken to reduce disinformation on private messaging services and several social media companies have already implemented tools and processes to achieve this such as clearly indicating where a message has been forwarded, improved reporting mechanisms and reducing the amount of times an individual account can forward a message. The Government is working with industry to identify the best way to understand the impact of these approaches in order to tackle these issues.

 

 

7. What are the positive or negative effects of anonymity on online democratic discourse?

 

Online anonymity is an important principle of a free and open internet. There are many legitimate reasons why an individual would not wish to identify themselves online. These include to protect whistle-blowers and empower victims of modern slavery and domestic and sexual abuse. Globally, anonymity can be especially important for allowing human rights defenders and journalists to operate, especially within authoritarian regimes, without fear of undue reprisal and detention. This would also apply to human rights defenders and journalists from abroad posting on UK-hosted sites.

 

The protection of anonymity can be an important component in protecting human rights. The UK co-sponsored a 2018 resolution in the UN Human Rights Council recognising the importance of privacy online, which has a particular relevance not only to the right to privacy, but also to freedom of expression; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; and other human rights.

 

However, in recent years there has been a worrying rise in the amount of abuse, harassment and intimidation directed at those in public life. Much of this abuse happens on social media, and the Government is aware of too many stories of public figures closing social media accounts following online abuse. In many cases, the offender will be unknown to the victim, and in some instances, they will have taken technical steps to conceal their identity. It should be noted, however, that abuse, harassment and intimidation online is not solely done under the cover of anonymity.

 

As part of our work in this area, the government is working with law enforcement to review whether the existing powers to identify individuals who attempt to use anonymity to escape sanctions for online abuse are sufficient.

 

We are pledging to do our part to regulate digital campaigning by increasing awareness of disinformation and making elections more transparent. As part of that, the Government has committed to implementing a digital imprints regime for online election campaign material.

The Cabinet Office will work closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other stakeholders to confirm how such regulations will be put into practice and which third party organisations it would extend to.

 

 

Democratic debate

8. To what extent does social media negatively shape public debate, either through encouraging polarisation or through abuse deterring individuals from engaging in public life?

 

Social media can play a positive role in public debate, helping to connect people and hold our political figures to account. The Government is committed to protecting freedom of speech and recognises the importance of healthy democratic debate online. However, as stated above, social media algorithms can lead to ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’. This can promote disinformation by ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree and can lead to a story being perceived as far more widely believed than it really is. Furthermore, fake accounts and bots can exploit social media algorithms to amplify false information and target and mislead specific groups. This can lead to increased polarisation in society.

 

The UK has witnessed a worrying rise in the levels of violence and abuse in our public life and across the political debate, particularly online. This risks not only putting voters off politics, but also putting off talented people from wanting to stand for public office. Thick skin cannot be the most important prerequisite for taking up a role in public life, particularly if we want the most diverse range of people to be represented in our politics.

 

In July 2017, the previous Prime Minister invited the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) to undertake a review on the intimidation of Parliamentary candidates, considering the wider implications for public office-holders, and producing recommendations for action which could be taken in the short- and the long-term. In December 2017, the Committee published its review, which set out 33 recommendations to protect people in public life from the severe level of intimidation and abuse that some MPs may receive. They concluded that intimidation in public life presents a threat to the very nature of representative democracy in the UK.

 

In the Government response to the Committee’s report, we committed to a series of actions. The Government has undertaken a public consultation, ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information’ and, in response, announced a range of measures to safeguard UK elections and crack down on intimidation, harmful influence and disinformation. The Government is committed to legislating to introduce a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run up to an election, either in person or online.

 

In February 2018 the previous Prime Minister announced a review by the Law Commission of the law relating to abusive and offensive online communications, to highlight any gaps in the criminal law which cause problems in tackling this abuse. In its November 2018 scoping report, the Law Commission concluded that behaviour is broadly criminalised to the same extent online as offline, but noted that there remained significant scope for reform. DCMS and MOJ have now engaged the Law Commission on a second phase of their review of Abusive and Offensive Online Communications. This work began in July 2019 and will build on the analysis undertaken by the Law Commission as part of Phase 1 of this review. It is expected to report in early 2021.

 

The Government is clear that hate crime is completely unacceptable and that those who commit hateful attacks should feel the full force of the law. The Government is committed to upholding free speech, and legislation is already in place to protect these fundamental rights. Current UK legislation values free speech and enables people who wish to engage in debate to do so - regardless of whether others agree with the views which are being expressed. Importantly, the law ensures that people are protected against criminal activity including threatening, menacing or obscene behaviour both on and offline. In this way, the Government believes the law strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and protecting their right to free expression.

 

 

9. To what extent do you think that there are those who are using social media to attempt to undermine trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions; and what might be the best ways to combat this and strengthen faith in democracy?

 

The Government takes the issue of online manipulation/disinformation very seriously and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle this. We know that certain organisations and states routinely use disinformation as a political or foreign policy tool, so it is not surprising that they should run campaigns attempting to influence democratic processes, trust and discourse in the UK. We take any allegations of interference in UK democratic processes extremely seriously.

 

Freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy; people must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely, to challenge their governments, and to make informed political decisions. The Government is proud that the UK benefits from a free, open and accessible media, though others may try to use this to manipulate and confuse the information environment to suit their own ends. Although robust mechanisms are in place to address manipulation/ disinformation in the broadcast and press industries, more work is needed, especially in the online space, to address its spread. We are working across government and beyond to monitor for any disinformation campaigns that threaten national security so that we can be ready to respond to them quickly and effectively. This includes engaging with social media platforms. Furthermore, the measures outlined in the Online Harms White Paper are intended to counter disinformation in all its forms, regardless of the actor(s) spreading it.

 

The Internet has greatly enhanced the public’s access to news and political engagement, providing platforms for journalism and forums for debate. But it has also created unforeseen challenges to the accuracy of information. The Government has taken steps to ensure that there is a coordinated structure across all relevant UK authorities to defend against hostile foreign interference in British politics, regardless of where it comes from, and reinforce faith in democracy. In July, Cabinet Office announced the creation of the Defending Democracy programme, which captures work taking place across government to ensure that our democracy is protected. This brings together work to safeguard our democratic processes and Government’s commitment to ensure that our democracy remains safe and inclusive.

 

The programme will:

        Protect and secure UK democratic processes, systems and institutions from interference, including from cyber, personnel and physical threats.

        Strengthen the integrity of UK elections.

        Encourage Respect for open, fair and safe democratic participation.

        Promote fact-based and open discourse, including online.

 

The Defending Democracy programme will help promote the integrity of our electoral system, defend it from hostile activity and disinformation, and maintain public confidence in democracy by improving transparency and accountability. Though this is a Government programme, we want to work with people from a broad range of perspectives to inform our work. That is why we are inviting the views of Parliamentarians, political parties, third party organisations, academics, regulators and others on the programme and its outcomes. At the same time, we will continue to consider all the recommendations already made to the Government. We all have a stake in our democracy and care deeply about the values it represents. By taking a broad and inclusive approach, this programme can build a consensus on the way forward to continue to defend our democracy into the future.

 

The Government also regularly engages with international partners to bolster our collective response to disinformation and interference. For example, at the June 2018 G7 Charlevoix Summit, we agreed to the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM).

 

 

Misinformation

10. What might be the best ways of reducing the effects of misinformation on social media platforms?

 

The Government makes a distinction between disinformation and misinformation. Government is primarily concerned with disinformation, which we define as the deliberate creation or dissemination of content known to be false, either to cause harm or for personal, political or financial gain. Misinformation is defined as the inadvertent spreading of false information, with no malign intent. However, misinformation can still be harmful - anti-vaccination misinformation presents a risk to public health, for instance.

 

Disinformation is in scope of the Online Harms White Paper. The White Paper provides an indicative list of the types of actions social media and other companies could take to limit the spread and impact of disinformation on their platforms and help their users understand the information they are receiving. These include:

        Making clear in their terms of service what constitutes disinformation, the expectations they have of users, and the penalties for violating those terms of service.

        Taking steps in relation to users who deliberately misrepresent their identity to spread and strengthen disinformation.

        Making content which has been disputed by reputable fact-checking services less visible to users.

        Using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods.

        Promoting authoritative news sources.

        Promoting diverse news content, countering the ‘echo chamber’ in which people are only exposed to information which reinforces their existing views.

        Ensuring that it is clear to users when they are dealing with automated accounts, and that automated dissemination of content is not abused.

        Improving the transparency of political advertising, helping meet any requirements in electoral law.

        Reporting processes which companies should put in place to ensure that users can easily flag content that they suspect or know to be false, and which enable users to understand what actions have been taken and why.

        Processes for publishing data that will enable the public to assess the overall effectiveness of the actions companies are taking, and for supporting research into the nature of online disinformation activity.

        Steps that services should take to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their processes for tackling disinformation and adapt processes accordingly.

 

Although these measures have been proposed with tackling disinformation in mind, they would also be effective in tackling misinformation.

 

Better education and awareness are also key to long-term success in limiting the harmful impact of disinformation and misinformation - as well as other online harms - on social media and society more widely. As stated in the Online Harms White Paper, online media and digital literacy can equip users with the skills they need to spot dangers online, critically appraise information and take steps to keep themselves and others safe online. It can also have wider benefits, including for the functioning of democracy by giving users a better understanding of online content and enabling them to distinguish between facts and opinions online. The White Paper announced the Government’s plans to develop an online media literacy strategy to ensure a coordinated and strategic approach to online media literacy education and awareness for children, young people and adults.

 

The Government has also taken action to increase awareness among the public of how to recognise disinformation online with the “Don’t Feed the Beast” campaign. Launched In April 2019, the campaign aims to increase audience awareness to disinformation by educating and empowering those who see, inadvertently share and are affected by false or misleading information. It provides straightforward advice to help the public check whether content is likely to be false or intentionally misleading. Earlier this year, the Government launched the ‘RESIST’ toolkit, which supports organisations in developing their own strategic counter-disinformation capability. The toolkit is primarily a resource for public service communications teams and it equips people with the knowledge and skills to identify, assess and respond to disinformation. The ‘RESIST’ model provides straightforward steps to follow and promotes a consistent approach.

 

 

Moderation

11. How could the moderation processes of large technology companies be improved to better tackle abuse and misinformation, as well as helping public debate flourish?

 

The Online Harms White Paper sets out the types of actions the Government thinks large technology companies could implement to tackle disinformation/ misinformation on their services more effectively, and one proposal is that an online harms regulator could enforce these as part of companies’ duty of care to protect their users from disinformation. These recommendations are very much focused on the processes by which companies could do this, rather than expecting them to make judgements about what is true or false. The Government believes that these proposed measures will help improve safety of whole information environment and promote a healthier public debate online.

 

Some of the proposals Government consulted on were moderation processes that could be improved to better tackle disinformation and misinformation, including:

        Making content disputed by reputable fact-checking services less visible to users;

        Taking steps in relation to users who deliberately misrepresent their identity to spread and strengthen disinformation;

        Using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods;

        Taking steps to ensure automated dissemination of content is not abused;

        Implementing reporting processes for users to be able to easily flag content they suspect or know to be false, and which enable users to understand what actions have been taken and why;

        Taking steps to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their processes for tackling disinformation and adapt processes accordingly

 

The Government recognises that several social media companies have already implemented tools and processes in line with these recommendations, as well as using automated AI techniques to detect and remove fake and spam accounts. However, we are clear that there is more that can be done to protect users. Government believes that the proposals set out in the Online Harms White Paper such as the Duty of Care on platforms would help to ensure that fact-based debate is able to flourish.

 

 

Technology and democratic engagement

12. How could the Government better support the positive work of civil society organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes?

 

The Government recognises the contributions of civil society organisations in facilitating effective functioning of our democracy. A number of proactive approaches have been employed by the government to engage and partner with civil society organisations, while leveraging technological outputs and media to drive and convey critical messages of democracy.

 

The introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) and the Register to Vote website has transformed the interaction with civil society organisations by enabling immediate applications and the inclusion of links to register to vote via social media and online platforms.

 

The Cabinet Office has produced the Atlas of Democratic Variation, a collection of choropleth maps, developed in collaboration with the Office for National Statistics, to illustrate geographical variations in data relevant to electoral registration activity. These maps are now publicly available online and can help civil society groups understand the levels of engagement in their communities.

 

The Government has also developed a dedicated website for National Democracy Week (NDW). NDW in 2018 saw 52 organisations across the UK run democratic engagement activities from 2 to 8 July 2018. The second National Democracy Week will run from 14 to 20 October 2019. The website has numerous digital assets including branding and partner pack and other resources designed to help civil society organisations and other partners to plan and deliver activity. This has been very successful as this was downloaded more than 2,000 times last year and it has been updated for NDW 2019.

Government has previously funded national organisations to deliver democratic engagement activity, using social media as an integral element. For example, ahead of the EU Referendum UpRising, a national youth leadership development organisation, were funded to engage young people to run a digital campaign. They were given the support of central and regional staff to get key messages out to their online followers via different social media channels.

 

Government has co-created a number of interactive resources, available as a collection on GOV.UK, which we encourage civil society organisations, schools and parliamentarians to use with different audiences. These include Rock Enrol! aimed at 13 to 16 year olds which incorporates short films, and the Historical Association who in partnership with Cabinet Office and the Government Equalities Office created Women’s Suffrage: History and Citizenship resources for schools. The Democracy Ambassador resource pack, including session plans, supporting guidance and handouts is also included in this online collection. Anyone can use the materials: the sessions are straightforward to prepare and run and can be tailored to suit different groups and settings. There are some easy-read versions available.

 

Government also has an ongoing Reducing Barriers to Registration Project which used a mixture of user testing and video ethnography to compile evidence on barriers facing frequent movers and homeless electors in registering to vote. These videos are being shared widely among electoral registration officers and civil society organisations to help them better understand the barriers to registration that exist for these groups, informing their democratic engagement work and co-designing potential solutions, many with a technological component. Insights from these videos have also fed into the development of anonymised frequent mover and homeless personas, made publicly available in the GOV.UK resource collection, to further support civil society organisations' democratic engagement work.

 

 

13. How can elected representatives use technology to engage with the public in local and national decision making? What can Parliament and Government do to better use technology to support democratic engagement and ensure the efficacy of the democratic process?

 

The Democratic Engagement Team in Cabinet Office created a Youth Engagement Toolkit for Elected and Non-Elected Officials. The toolkit was designed with young people and Parliamentarians to create activities young people will engage with and the toolkit offers advice on how to engage with young people, including what digital platforms to use. A section of the toolkit explores how elected and non-elected officials can effectively use social media to engage with young people aged 13-16 years old.

 

 

14. What positive examples are there of technology being used to enhance democracy?

 

As set out in the CSPL report, social media is a powerful democratising force. It has allowed citizens to communicate directly with politicians and those standing for office, to ensure that their voices are heard and public figures can be directly held to account.

 

Social media platforms have taken direct action to encourage democratic participation, with Facebook providing reminders to help users find out how to register, what to expect on election day and where voting places are located. In the US 2016 elections, Google created a pop up banner which appeared at the top of Google Maps and read, “Find your Polling Place.” Clicking on this banner would then take users to a customized Google Search query, built especially for Election Day.

 

As previously mentioned, the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) has proved to be a significant success, making registering to vote easier, more secure and less open to fraud.  Similarly, the Government’s Register to Vote Website has also had a positive impact on democratic engagement. For the 2017 General Election 93% of the 2.9 million applications submitted between the day the poll was announced and the registration deadline were made online. This resulted in a Parliamentary register of 46.8 million electors, the highest number we have seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Clarifications from the session:

 

Lord Harris of Haringey: This is a very small point. You talk about escalating the issues up to the National Security Council. I had understood that, following the change of Prime Minister, the sub-committee structure under the National Security Council had not yet been reconstituted. If that is the case, does it present an issue, because presumably it would not necessarily have gone to the full National Security Council?

 

A: Cabinet Committees, including National Security Council sub-committees are set up by the Prime Minister as required. If an issue requires discussion at a Cabinet Committee, there is no reason to prevent the National Security Council or another Cabinet Committee discussing the matter should it be judged necessary and in scope.

 

Lord Harris of Haringey: I had been going to ask this question and you have almost answered it. Would it be possible to have a note on the various initiatives which the Government are taking on raising the digital media literacy of adults as opposed to children?

A: Details on digital and media literacy initiatives for people of all ages have been included within our answer to question 3.

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[1] The Cairncross Review (2019). A sustainable future for journalism. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/779882/021919_DCMS_Cairncross_Review_.pdf

 

[2] The Cairncross Review (2019). A sustainable future for journalism. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/779882/021919_DCMS_Cairncross_Review_.pdf

[3]  The House of Lords Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media (2018). Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldppdm/106/106.pdf

[4] Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (2019). Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/1791/1791.pdf