Facebook and other social media firms will face multi-billion pound fines if they fail to take down Kremlin disinformation under new laws.
They will be placed under a new legal duty to “proactively” prevent and remove attempts by Russia, other hostile states and their agents to use their sites to mislead the public or interfere in the UK’s political system.
The move is part of the Government’s overhaul of national security laws which will make foreign interference a criminal offence with a maximum jail sentence of 14 years. It comes as Facebook and Twitter have suspended dozens of accounts disseminating false information during the Ukraine war.
Foreign interference will become one of 10 crimes featured in the new Online Safety Bill alongside child abuse, terrorism, revenge porn, fraud, promotion of people smuggling and sexual exploitation.
This means big social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok will be required to proactively look for and remove disinformation from hostile states like Russia which harms the UK.
Fines of up to 10pc of turnover
Ofcom, the communications watchdog, will have powers to fine them up to 10 per cent of their global turnover if they fail to tackle such content or block their services from UK users.
Ministers maintain the bill will protect free speech with a right of appeal to prevent the arbitrary removal of legitimate content and say the tech firms will only be expected to act if it is clear disinformation that damages the UK and has been put up on behalf of a hostile government.
The Home Office has defined foreign interference as intended to “sow discord, manipulate public discourse, discredit the political system, bias the development of policy, and undermine the safety or interests of the UK”.
It will include tackling material from fake accounts set up by individuals or groups acting on behalf of foreign states to influence democratic or legal processes, such as elections and court proceedings, or spread hacked information to undermine democratic institutions.
‘Hostile online warfare’
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “The invasion of Ukraine has yet again shown how readily Russia can and will weaponise social media to spread disinformation and lies about its barbaric actions, often targeting the very victims of its aggression.
“We cannot allow foreign states or their puppets to use the internet to conduct hostile online warfare unimpeded. That’s why we are strengthening our new internet safety protections to make sure social media firms identify and root out state-backed disinformation.”
Ofcom will set out guidance. Measures could include making it more difficult to create large scale fake accounts or tackling the use of bots in malicious disinformation campaigns. Firms will need to determine if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe it is state-sponsored disinformation.
The culture department said these judgments could be based on patterns of behaviours and tactics used, or aided by relevant knowledge of the political and geopolitical context, for example narratives from state-backed media being amplified online.