Facebook and Twitter should do more to combat fake news, says GCHQ

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent
Fake news is increasingly visible on social media sites such as Facebook. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook should be doing more to combat the emerging threat of fake news, a director of the government’s new National Cyber Security Centre has said.

Paul Chichester, the director for operations at the GCHQ-controlled body, said the companies must recognise their “social responsibility” and help tackle misinformation spread by state-backed groups.

He said: “We don’t own those platforms, we don’t run them, the industry does. It’s really important that they do recognise they carry some social responsibility.

“Technology companies, they’re huge global companies with responsibilities of nation states sometimes to tackle some of these problems.”

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), which officially opened on 14 February, has said protecting the integrity of Britain’s electoral democratic systems is one of its top priorities following the hacking of the Democratic party in the US last year.

Facebook has come under particular scrutiny after a proliferation of fake news stories went viral during the US presidential election campaign, including one story that claimed the pope had endorsed Donald Trump.

The social network is testing a way to flag news deemed to be fake but government officials, including the EU’s digital chief, Andrus Ansip, have urged them to take a stronger stance or face action from Brussels.

Asked on Tuesday whether social networks could do more to tackle the rising tide of fake news, Chichester said: “I think so. It’s an emerging threat that we’re all grappling with. It’s not just a challenge for government.

“I think you can see some of the social media companies already looking at tackling some of that.

“I think perhaps they feel they’ve been exploited and they’re looking to tackle that as well. Actually, I think it currently looks like an area we can collaborate and work together with industry to tackle this.”

Chichester was speaking in Liverpool on the fringes of the NCSC’s first cybersecurity summit, hailed Cyber UK. Security was tight at the three-day event for intelligence and cybersecurity professionals. A small number of journalists was allowed to watch a keynote address by Robert Hannigan, the outgoing GCHQ director, before being ushered out.

The government-run conference comes a week after WikiLeaks published what it claimed was the biggest leak of confidential documents from the CIA, detailing the tools it uses to break into phones, smart televisions and other communication devices.

Chichester would not be drawn on the implications of the leak for the British intelligence agencies, but said cyber-criminals would seek to take advantage from any vulnerabilities disclosed in the leak.

He said: “For us any leak of data, or any leak of vulnerabilities, in an uncontrolled way, whoever does it doesn’t help the security industry. We believe in responsible disclosure. We believe in if you understand vulnerabilities you have ways to disclose them responsibly. I wouldn’t in any way shape or form endorse the mass leaking of anything like that.

“Cybercriminals will always be looking for new techniques. They’ll certainly be keen to look at how they can use them. Any time when somebody discloses potentially new ways of attacking systems then the criminals are going to be really keen to weaponise them before people have had a chance to fix them.”

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