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31 October 2019

Damian Collins on electoral law, disinformation and Dominic Cummings

On the day Twitter banned political ads, the chair of the DCMS select committee discusses elections in the age of social media. 

By George Grylls

Last year, parliament summoned Alexander Nix to answer questions on fake news and disinformation. The chief executive of Cambridge Analytica began his appearance before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee by reading out a pre-prepared statement.

“Before I answer your questions, I’d like to make a few short clarifications.”

The chair of the committee, Damian Collins, was unimpressed: “It’s not the practice of committees to allow opening statements. I’d be grateful if you could start with the questions.”

For the next three minutes, Nix remonstrated with Collins, gesticulating, wheedling, and then eventually bulldozing on with his clarifications against the express instructions of Collins. Calmly and authoritatively, Collins interrupted him. “I’m sorry Mr Nix, it’s not your place to insist on anything in front of this committee. You are here to answer members’ questions.”

Nix shifted his papers away from their place on the table in front of him and backed down. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg had run away from an earlier invitation to appear before the committee.

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It was an indicative episode in Collins’s handling of a huge inquiry. In February a report was released that recommended a raft of new legislation. There were some obvious conclusions: social media companies should be liable for harmful content shared on their websites; a levy on big tech could help fund a more powerful information commissioner.

And then there was the bombshell buried in one sentence mid-report: “Electoral law is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed.”

Despite this damning conclusion, with the full knowledge that our electoral law is deficient, we are heading into a general election.

“It’s a shame that we have not updated the law,” says Collins, speaking in his parliamentary office  a kempt and orderly space. 

“There are two things in our electoral law that safeguard our democracy. Keeping accurate records of how much money is spent. And transparency. We need to know who is saying what. Currently, technology kicks away those two things.”

Collins’s breadth of knowledge is striking. Yet the stocky MP orders his thoughts militantly. Firstly, he addresses fundraising: “We’re vulnerable to dark money funding shady campaign groups. The Chair of the Federal Election Commission in America estimates that about a billion dollars of dark money has gone into American politics. It’s very easy for people to process large donations through a series of micro-donations.”

But, citing the visit by the Electoral Commission to the Brexit Party’s offices in May, Collins is hopeful that the issue is now being examined closely.

“In previous elections we did not know what we were looking for. We do now.”

The DCMS select committee has at times struggled to hold Facebook, Google and others to account  Zuckerberg’s refusal to testify is a prime example. Given the overall lack of cooperation from big tech, Collins believes that political parties themselves should set an example in moderating debate online. 

“There’s been a coarsening of political discourse over the past few years and social media has played a part in that. The parties should have a zero-tolerance approach to the way activists campaign online.”

The problem is that one man’s definition of coarse is another’s definition of fair game. Humbug? Wreckers? Saboteurs? Collins chooses to stick to the safe ground of clear abuse  homophobic, misogynist or racist language. He is disgusted that women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds have suffered disproportionately. But there are grey areas. If a party activist called Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite online, surely the Labour leader would take offence?

“I would not condone that,” says Collins. 

Collins is in an awkward position. He is generally outspoken on the issue of data-harvesting by political campaigns, using as an example “an app called uCampaign that was used in the EU referendum and by Trump in America. If you download the app you may be giving it permission to access all of the numbers in your phonebook.”

Yet, as a Conservative MP, Collins is about to fight a general election in which former members of Vote Leave could play a significant role  chief among them Dominic Cummings. The campaign group has been accused by the Guardian of running online sports competitions during the EU referendum for precisely the sort of harvesting that Collins opposes.

“The Prime Minister is within his rights to appoint Dominic Cummings,” says Collins, before delivering a warning shot. “But ultimately Boris Johnson is the leader of the Conservative Party and he’s responsible for the campaign.”

Cummings, like Zuckerberg, refused to appear in front of the DCMS select committee, and Collins has not forgotten: “He should have appeared in front of the committee. It’s not just my view. It’s the view of the whole House of Commons. It’s being looked at by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.”

Collins has a knack of knowing when to pick his fights. He does not yet have the legislation to back him up, but he is insistent that Facebook could and should change at least one policy.

“Mark Zuckerberg is wrong in saying that political ads should not be checked by Facebook. He thinks that as long as you are a real person on Facebook you can say what you like.”

Collins gives the example of a video of Nancy Pelosi, which was edited to make her look drunk. YouTube took the video down. Facebook did not. Collins believes that if advertisers are paying, then Facebook has a duty of care to its consumers.

“Facebook should not be accepting money to promote lies during elections.”

Unfortunately for the British electorate, there is nothing yet to stop Facebook from doing just that. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey announced yesterday that the social network will no longer run any political adverts. Zuckerberg has thus far declined to do the same.

Overall Collins is optimistic. His work and that of many others has at least helped inform people of the implications of online political campaigning. He believes Dorsey’s concession yesterday was a small victory in a long war.

“We can have a free and fair election in December. But we need to be hyper-vigilant.”

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