They were historic conversations on many levels, and not just because 11 British Members of Parliament flew across the Atlantic to hold hearings with Google, Twitter and Facebook executives (as well as scholars, journalists and news publishers) at George Washington University last week. It was “the first ever live broadcast and public hearing of a House of Commons select committee outside the UK,” The Guardian reported, and there were some five hours of recorded formal testimony (it can be watched here and here).
The fairly limited news coverage of the hearing focused on the Internet companies sessions, but the House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee heard a full afternoon’s testimony from two other sets of views too: a group of scholars and researchers and one of journalists and news publishing executives. The subject was “fake news,” but I got the impression the MPs weren’t always sure just exactly what that is and involves (not unlike the rest of us).
That the hearing encompassed so much – everything from the past and present of the news business to electoral law to the future of democracy, in addition to algorithms, content moderation, and news’s place in social media’s vast spectrum of content – was both good news and bad news. It was bad news because the problem of fake news didn’t get full, in-depth treatment. For example, at one point the conversation pivoted rapidly from how U.S. voter data was processed in the U.K. (by London-based data mining and analysis firm Cambridge Analytica – see this by testifier David Carroll of The New School) to comparing social media platforms to traditional publishing companies (more on this in a moment). It was good news because this cross-disciplinary conversation needed to start and it shed a bright spotlight on how much would-be regulators and Internet companies have to learn about each other and how much they and all of us have to learn about the societal impacts of big data.
The definitions problem
At one point in the first afternoon session, MP Simon Hart asked Claire Wardle, a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, whether – since there are already “established norms for people who have the power to affect the outcome of elections by what they choose to print and what they choose to withhold – is there a sustainable argument out there which explains why people who run an online platform consider themselves to be in a very different place legally from those who run an offline platform, i.e. a newspaper?”
Dr. Wardle responded, “My frustration is, we get into these battles of definitions, with us saying ‘you’re a publisher,’ and their saying ‘no, we’re a platform.’ The truth is, they’re somewhere in the middle. They’re a hybrid form of communication. What I’d like to see, and to be honest I did hear some of that this morning [in the testimony of the platforms], ‘We would like to be part of the conversation around what new forms of regulation might look like.’ Because I don’t think we can take the broadcast model. We can’t regulate speech on Twitter in the same way we regulate the BBC. That’s not workable.”