Voilà des extraits d’un texte du journal conservateur britannique The Times où deux publicistes se posent des questions. Quel est le rôle d’Internet ? Ils n’en savent pas trop rien et cherchent sans trouver le moyen d’aller plus loin. Bernard Owen
Is Vladimir Putin meddling in British politics?
November 9 2017, 12:01am, The Times
… »Thousands of people, working in buildings, pushing out fake news. Which is why we have to recognise that this is one of the genuine threats to our democracy and our way of life.”
… »Start worrying about this and your worries take you into confusing places. Those deleted 13,000 Twitter bots, for example, were fake people, but they weren’t necessarily spreading fake news. Does that matter? The day before I speak to Collins, the Electoral Commission announces an inquiry into the Brexit campaigner Arron Banks, and where exactly he found the £2.3 million he donated to various branches of the Leave campaign. »
…éthe former Leave.EU director of communications Andy Wigmore have bragged about their use of data, artificial intelligence and even bots to influence voters in the referendum, targeting them with partisan messaging. “Partisan”, of course, is not the same as “fake”. Or is it?
“It depends on the messaging,” Collins says. “I think within the spirit of a fake-news campaign, if people are spreading lies, disinformation, using social-media platforms for clearly electorally motivated reasons, then that is something which is of interest to our inquiry. But there’s nothing wrong with a political campaign saying we’re going to use all the legitimate advanced technologies we can find to target voters in a cost-effective way.”
… »Collins agrees that this raises “interesting ethical issues”, but is adamant that it is quite distinct from fake news. ……while nobody could credibly suggest that 17.4 million Leave voters were swayed by Facebook adverts, it is also hardly conspiratorial to suggest that advertising does have an effect on swing voters. Otherwise, why would any campaign bother? »
…“The next question,” he says, “is do we believe that technology is being used to propagate fake news? And if we do believe that is going on, who is doing it and why are they doing it?” And after that we need to understand whether it made any difference. “What we need to do,” he says, “is take all that from the realm of conspiracy theory and say, ‘Well, how true is it? At the moment there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests people were working together in that way. Is that just coincidental?’ ”
These are the questions Collins is hoping that Facebook, Twitter and others will answer. In December the committee is to go to Washington to hold an evidence session in the British embassy with various tech giants. I’m interested in knowing how co-operative Collins expects them to be, what with his American counterpart’s experience having been, just occasionally, a little like drawing blood from a stone.
… »One obvious candidate would be RT, or Russia Today, the Russian-state broadcaster, which has often been accused of amplifying messages of disinformation with its western-focused, English-language broadcasting. Lately, the network has been advertising on the London Underground, with posters brazenly trolling those concerned about Russian-backed fake news. “Missed the train? Lost a vote?” said one, recently. “Blame it on us!” Might the committee ask them to give evidence, too?
“We could do,” says Collins, reminding me about Ofcom rulings that have criticised RT.com for breaching broadcasting codes on impartiality. For him, RT and its sister organisation Sputnik are quite clearly “news agencies backed by foreign governments with a highly partisan view of the world”.
Collins is conscious, though, that action against them could have consequences that Russia wouldn’t mind at all. “What if the Russian government turned around and said, ‘Well, we’re going to ban the BBC’?” he says. “Or close down Facebook because people use it there to distribute western media? Perhaps Russia would actually welcome that because it’s to their benefit to restrict the debate in their own country. So we really need to have our eyes open to what the potential consequences of what we are doing are.”
Looking at the precedent of America, the greatest of those consequences could be at home. For me, if I am honest, it is bizarre and a little alarming that an issue so vital to our functioning democracy is the preserve of a single parliamentary committee, albeit with a small amount of tangential help, very recently, from the Electoral Commission. Collins says he has discussed the inquiry with Amber Rudd, the home secretary, but says mainly that the government, “is letting us get on with it”.
Given its importance, given its potential scale, and given how much of it depends, for now, on the wholly optional co-operation of the tech giants, I do wonder if that’s really good enough. Collins is impressive and focused and he definitely knows his stuff. Maybe, all the same, he could use a little help. »