DEBATE: Can we blame tech companies for helping Russia spread fake news during the referendum campaign?

Picture of a screen displaying logos of
Up to 126m Americans saw Facebook posts disseminated by Russian-linked agents (Source: Getty)

Can we blame tech companies for helping Russia spread fake news during the referendum campaign?

Olivia Utley, news editor at Reaction, says YES.

The argument, which was widely accepted before the UK referendum, is that a split in Europe and a revival of European nationalism was in Vladimir Putin’s interests. It was widely believed – and still is by some – that Europeans would have even less potency to resist Russia and maintain the sanctions policy after Brexit.

It was in Putin’s interests, therefore, to influence our referendum – and luckily for him, he had the perfect tools at his fingertips.

According to a 2016 Reuters Digital News Report, 51 per cent of people now access online news through social media, allowing these platforms to curate their news intake through carefully formulated, personalised algorithms.

In the US, it is now thought that up to 126m Americans saw Facebook posts disseminated by Russian-linked agents seeking to influence the 2016 presidential election – which amounts to almost half of the entire electorate.

If Facebook, Twitter and Google could enable Russia to do this in the US, then why not here too?

Read more: Facebook, Google and Twitter reveal more Russia ties ahead of grilling

Sam Dumitriu, head of projects at the Adam Smith Institute, says NO.

Blaming social media sites for spreading Russian “fake news” is as silly as attacking printing presses for distributing pro-Soviet publications, or BT for crimes organised over the phone. Tech giants do not have editorial control – they are platforms for speech.

Some worry about Russia’s sponsored posts on Facebook, but they represented just 0.05 per cent of total political ad spending on Facebook during the US election, and under a hundred-thousandth of the company’s quarterly ad revenue.

Facebook and Google are spending millions on using machine learning to filter out fake news. If people don’t trust the content they see on their news feed, legitimate organisations with much deeper pockets will be much less likely to spend money on ads. But forcing these platforms to censor foreign accounts accused of spreading untruths is an attack on free speech. Greater regulation of social media by the “good guys” will inevitably be used as justification when Vladimir Putin wants to crackdown on speech back home.

Read more: Editor's Notes: The Russians swung the Brexit vote? Pull the other one...

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles