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The Policy Ask with Carl Miller: “I’ve had conspiracy theorists turning up at the office”

The cofounder of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media on disinformation, online safety and protecting the BBC.

By Spotlight

Carl Miller is research director at Demos, a centrist think tank, where he helped found the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media in 2012. He is also a visiting fellow at King’s College, London. Miller is the author of The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab, an investigation into power and technology in the digital age, published in 2018.

How do you start your working day?

Full disclosure: emails. I won’t sugarcoat any of these answers. I reach for my phone while I’m still only half conscious. And this is from someone who gives lectures on the dangers of digital addiction.

What has been your career high?

Very early on in my career, I wrote a paper with colleagues proposing the idea of “social media intelligence”, which we coined “SOCMINT”. I joked at the time that maybe, just maybe, SOCMINT would creep into the dictionary before I die. And it did – sort of. It’s all been downhill from there. 

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

Not a single moment, more a repeating one, but it’s when we release research on disinformation, malign influence, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hate or harassment on social media. In the wake of some of those, I (and my colleagues) are pummelled by hate and threats online. I’ve had extremists phone up with threats and conspiracy theorists turning up at the office. It’s settled now as part of the job of people who report on online harms.

[See also: “AI fear-mongering pains me”]

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If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

To university-age Carl Miller, dreaming of being a think tanker: pick up some hard research skills. Soft skills, like writing, are fine, but there are many thousands of others who know how to do that too. Get some experience running a statistics package, or Conjoint survey analysis, or qualitative content analysis, or, nowadays, machine learning-driven analysis.

Which political figure inspires you?

Gordon Brown. I miss a leader trying to genuinely improve the UK through policymaking and the mechanism of government, rather than ridiculous media spectacle or madcap ideology.

What policy or fund is the UK government getting right?

I’m gonna give a shout-out to Innovate UK. I don’t know how many readers will have heard of this, but it’s basically a fund that supports early-stage, sometimes risky new ideas that would struggle to get lift-off through purely commercial forces. It was massively helpful in getting my own research group – the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media – off the ground.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

Not a specific policy per se, but all the rigmarole and budgetary pressure on the BBC need to stop. I cannot think of a more important institution to help us navigate a world swirling with disinformation, deep fakes, partisan outrage, AI-powered chatbots, state-sanctioned trolls and who-knows-what in the years ahead. And at a time when autocrats headily expand their influence operations abroad, it is just crazy to me that we see cuts to things like the BBC World Service. 

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

The Online Safety Bill. Why? Simply because, for all its problems and controversies, it’s been the main policy ask I’ve had over the past ten years. For ten years, we’ve had to cajole, embarrass and plead with American tech companies to do more to confront the online harms their platforms host. The Online Safety Bill ushers in a whole new era.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

The Biden administration’s AI Bill of Rights. Simple, clear, fundamental principles backed up by the highest political authority is the only way we’re going to move quickly and decisively enough to put guardrails around AI

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

Wilfully misinterpreting this question to suit my own ends, I would surge government funding and prioritisation into cybercrime policing. We’re living through a huge transfer of crime online, and soon most economically motivated crime will be online. This has created probably the most serious challenge to law enforcement in the history of modern policing; we have to remake institutions, change what policing looks like, and funnel money into the transformation. All of that can only start at the political level. I’d also enshrine digital democracy in our electoral processes, but I’ve run out of space for that.

[See also: Social media bosses should be held criminally liable for harmful content]

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