Fake News Threat to Democracy, Says British Parliament

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The British House of Commons in an interim report by its Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has warned that the deliberate dissemination of false information poses threat to democracy.

The report released Saturday  also referenced the case of Black Cube, an Israeli intelligence firm fingered in the hacking of emails and medical records of President Muhammadu Buhari, while he was still a candidate running for election against then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan.

The report said there “are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for profit or other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections.”

The report said such “has been the impact of this agenda, the focus of our inquiry moved from understanding the phenomenon of ‘fake news’, distributed largely through social media, to issues concerning the very future of democracy.”

Arguably, the report said, more invasive than obviously false information is the relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour.

Black Cube, an Israeli corporate intelligence organisation, describes itself as “a select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units that specialises in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.” The organisation claimed that using our unique intelligence methodology, Black Cube enhanced its clients’ decision making by providing otherwise unobtainable information.

According to the British House of Commons Committee, fake news’ is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or an agreed definition.

The committee said the term “has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader.

“We recommend that the government rejects the term ‘fake news’, and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’.

“With such a shared definition, and clear guidelines for companies, organisations, and the Government to follow, there will be a shared consistency of meaning across the platforms, which can be used as the basis of regulation and enforcement.”

The committee received evidence about the role of SCL Elections, a company that Alexander Nix formed, as an offshoot of SCL Group, in 2011, and its role in foreign elections, including its use of misinformation, disinformation and micro-targeting, which may have crossed the line into unethical, or even illegal behaviour.

A Channel 4 undercover investigation, broadcast in March 2018, filmed Mark Turnbull, former Managing Director of SCL Elections, and Alexander Nix, the then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, talking about using misinformation, dirty tricks and the manipulation of social media to influence elections around the world, and boasting of using bribery, honey traps and sex workers to discredit politicians and to influence the political outcome of elections in several countries.

“We have been running election campaigns since 1994. We take on a number of national elections every year. That could be three, four, five, six, seven elections across the world in every single year for prime ministers and presidents.

“That could be in Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa or beyond. We have a political division, but our political division is only, say, 20 percent or 25 percent of our entire business,” Turnbull told the reporter.

Alexander Nix later told the Channel 4 reporter: “We use some British companies, we use some Israeli companies.” One of the Israeli companies he said that Cambridge Analytica used was Black Cube.

The committee learnt that “Black Cube was engaged to hack the now President of Nigeria, Buhari, to get access to his medical records and private emails. AIQ worked on that project.”

A promotional case study of international projects includes a section on Nigeria, which explains how SCL encouraged potential opposition voters not to vote.

SCL was able to advise that rather than trying to motivate swing voters to vote for our clients, a better strategy might be to persuade opposition voters not to vote at all—an action that could be easily monitored. This was achieved by organising anti-election rallies on the day of polling in opposition strongholds.

These were conducted by local religious figures to maximise their appeal especially among the spiritual, rural communities.

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