General election: Why Twitter was quite right to threaten action against the Conservatives – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

Fake news, disinformation and repurposed ‘satire’ risk leading us into a ‘digital dystopia’ and it’s time to force internet giants to stop the corruption of the worldwide web, writes Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP.

Wednesday, 27th November 2019, 11:40 am
Sir Tim Berners-Lee's “Contract for the Internet” suggests a set of standards that good internet companies should abide by. Picture: Getty

According to ­Wikipedia I went to private school and suffer a rare balance disorder that sees me fall down uncontrollably. This condition requires me to use crutches and take samba lessons in Davidson’s Mains to improve it. However, none of these things were ever true.

These entries have since been amended and my Wikipedia profile locked against vandalism (frustratingly it’s also locked me out too, so I’m left with a profile picture which has more chins than Jabba the Hut).

In the grand scheme of things, this is pretty innocent stuff, but it is symptomatic of a worrying reality of our time.

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Alex Cole-Hamilton is the LIb Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western

John F Kennedy once said that “no matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth”. Never before, in the conduct of human affairs, has that been more evident than it is in the age of the internet.

Take even a shallow dive into cyberspace and you will find any number of strange assertions:

1, The water in the world’s oceans doesn’t flow off the sides of Earth because Earth is flat! (It’s not).

2, Vaccines cause autism! (They don’t).

3, Jo Swinson tortures squirrels in her spare time! (She doesn’t).

People who really should know better are peddling false facts such as these around cyberspace as received wisdom – and it’s getting out of control.

The rise of conspiracy content and fake news follows a continuum. The satirical misinformation, which gave me my balance condition, represents the shallow end of that spectrum, but it becomes deadly serious when an assertion or a “news story” has the believability to skew an election.

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People are waking up to that and are starting to question whether the information they receive is authentic. It’s why we’ve seen the rise of fact-check organisations. They offer ­citizens the opportunity to cut through to the truth, but they too are now being misused.

That the party of government should seek to emulate such an organisation by changing its Twitter branding is particularly egregious and Twitter is right to threaten them with sanction.

Information is becoming weaponised. Hostile powers are seeking to subvert our democracies and distort our elections.

They do this by generating and amplifying disinformation and pass it off as mainstream, legitimate third-party comment.

Indeed, there is now incontrovertible proof that Russia tried to, and may have succeeded in, influencing the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election via the release of classified or entirely bogus information designed to harm Hillary Clinton.

They may also have influenced the EU referendum, but because the Prime Minister has delayed the publication of the report into that, we won’t know for sure until after the election.

So what do we do about it? Well, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the internet, has launched a plan to stop the world falling into a “digital dystopia”.

His proposed Contract for the Internet suggests a set of standards that good internet companies should abide by, in the hope of “preserving the promise of the internet and stopping it being misused”.

It is wide-ranging and calls on all of the governments of the world to keep the web free, safe and fair. It can’t come soon enough.

The worldwide web is a perfect example of a technology, the development of which far outstripped, in both speed and scale, any hope that governments had to properly legislate for it.

Don’t get me wrong, what we see on the web should, by and large, be protected from the reach of government so long as it is safe and legal, but the internet giants should be compelled to do more to prevent its corruption by those who would seek to harm us.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is the Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western.