The UK government needs more than tough words to get Facebook and Twitter to cough up Russia evidence (FB, TWTR) - Foenaija - Home
The UK government needs more than tough words to get Facebook and Twitter to cough up Russia evidence (FB, TWTR)

The UK government needs more than tough words to get Facebook and Twitter to cough up Russia evidence (FB, TWTR)

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Jack Dorsey and Mark ZuckerbergReuters

  • Facebook and Twitter are not cooperating fully with a UK parliamentary committee's inquiry into Russian meddling in Brexit.
  • A British minister said their engagement with the issue is "wholly inadequate."
  • But the government needs to start asking smarter questions if it wants answers.


The British government is losing patience with Facebook and Twitter.

The US tech companies are not cooperating fully with a parliamentary committee's bid to get the bottom of Russian meddling in Brexit — and they were given a dressing down on Thursday.

Digital minister Matt Hancock said evidence Facebook and Twitter provided the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee (DCMSC) was "entirely partial and wholly inadequate." He grumbled: "They need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Hancock said the government would "not rule out taking further action" to solicit more fulsome disclosures, but stopped short of detailing what this would involve. His aides were no more forthcoming when Business Insider requested further information. "What the minister said yesterday speak for itself," a spokesman said.

The DCMSC could, with the support of the government, take the unusual step of reporting Facebook and Twitter to the House of Commons in an effort to find them in contempt of Parliament. But this has not been attempted in "many decades," according to the Handbook of House of Commons Procedure.

Asking smarter questions

The government is far more likely to get results by more straightforward means: Simply handing Facebook and Twitter any intelligence it has on attempted Russian subversion.

Ministers have repeatedly stated that there is no evidence of "successful interference" in British democracy by the Kremlin. That suggests intelligence officials have examples of unsuccessful interference, which would chime with academic research showing that thousands of Russian-based Twitter accounts posted about Brexit last year.

Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake put it this way to Hancock: "I thank the minister for his tough words about the social media companies, but we also need to ensure that the security services provide them with information they may have so that they can follow the leads already obtained by the intelligence services."

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 14, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei KarpukhinThomson Reuters

And all the indications are that Facebook and Twitter would respond to more specific allegations. Business Insider understands that Facebook has made it known to the government that it will investigate any leads, names, or details pointed out by intelligence services.

And as for Twitter, specific allegations made by four US intelligence agencies in a 25-page report in January helped prompt it into disclosing that 30,000 Russia-linked accounts generated 1.4 million tweets during the final stretch of last year's presidential election.

Both Facebook and Twitter declined to comment, but Ben Nimmo, a researcher at US think-tank the Atlantic Council, explained their thinking.

He told BI: "It would not be in keeping with their basic mentality to want to know exactly where their users are and to be able to share that with the security services. Because if you do that in the UK, you kind of have to do it in Russia, and China, and Saudi, and places where if somebody posts the wrong thing, they go to jail."

So, if the British government wants answers from these social media firms, it needs to start asking more specific questions. And with the DCMSC ready to travel to Washington in February to grill them, now is the time to turn the screw.

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