Tag: Policy engagement

Misinformation and social media in the US election: comparing 2016 and 2020

Written by Dr Julio Amador Diaz Lopez, Research Fellow at Imperial College Business School

Part of the narrative used to explain the Trump presidency has been foreign misinformation in the 2016 election. A lot of research — investigative such as the Mueller report as well as academic such as ours at Imperial — has been centred around foreign influence operations. The FBI has concluded that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) conducted active measures to influence public opinion well before the election but constantly in the days leading to Election Day. These measures included well-coordinated efforts to imitate Americans and passing forward information to polarise the public, the objective being to de-incentivise the public from engaging in healthy democratic practices ranging from maintaining civil discussions to voting. In fact, our own research has shown these measures included pushing disinformation related to the latter. In particular, we identified these agents tried to cast doubt about the number of people voting, suggesting a lot of people that were not allowed to vote, were doing so. This may sound familiar.

Voting rights — who can vote, requirements to cast a vote, and, now, in the times of coronavirus, which absentee ballots will be valid — have been on the mainstream political debate ever since the Bush administration. The rationale — or at least a blunt assessment of it — being: minorities in the US have increasingly become a political force. Hence, making it harder for them to vote will benefit the Republicans as these groups often associate with Democrats. Or, if we follow the GOP’s rationale: Democrats are recruiting people that are not allowed to vote to cast ballots for them.

In our 2016 data, we found that many social media posts pushed forward by the IRA indeed used this narrative. However, as this information was being posted by foreigners (remember, the IRA was pushing forward some of these messages), we were able to exploit misspellings and semantics to identify which message came from a foreign influence campaign and which came from within the US. (Remember, regardless of your point of view, it is not illegal to post these messages. It is harmful, however, if a foreigner wants to influence US domestic politics).

Different from the 2016 election, this time most of the misinformation related to voting rights (from slanted opinions to outright lies) is being pushed by the president of the United States. As such, much of the disinformation being discussed in the US is now created and propagated from actors within the US. Therefore, we cannot effectively follow the same strategy to identify misinformation. Most important, within the context of free speech in the United States, this misinformation — the one created and pushed by American citizens — is allowed and, some argue, even in the public interest (not because of the content itself, but —the argument goes — because citizens would be able to identify who is engaging in bad behaviour and be able to electorally punish them). Hence, attention from policymakers has shifted from identifying and banning misinformation to contextualising it; for example, Twitter has opted not for tracking and erasing all posts but putting them behind a warning and precluded its diffusion.

This seems a very reasonable, promising approach. As of now, our understanding of misinformation — from providing a unified definition to characterising it — is limited; even more so our ability to catch all pieces of misinformation in the web. Therefore, identifying prominent influencers capable of affecting political discourse and concentrating efforts in contextualising every time they push blatant lies may be reasonable. But this opens another can of worms: do we want social media firms doing this? Do we want governments to do so?

Evidence and safety must be central to the UK’s space strategy

Dr Jonathan Eastwood is a senior lecturer at Imperial’s Department of Physics.

Access to and use of Space is of increasing national significance, identified as a key technological, research and strategic priority for the UK. In part this is due to the growing dependence on space services and systems as an integral part of the national infrastructure for communication, finance, transport, navigation and more, affecting every aspect of our economy, wellbeing and security. Rapidly developing technology and private investment in space will add to this significance.

Earth in space

A strong evidence-based space policy and law is therefore crucial to navigating the fluid and dynamic challenges posed by these developments. The anticipated dramatic expansion of space activities and reliance on them in the next decade brings environmental and social impact, shining new light on the critical issue of space safety.

Alongside colleagues at Imperial’s Space Lab Network of Excellence and the London Institute of Space Policy and Law, we have published a report which outlines that although there is a large amount of research interest in the topic, space safety is receiving inadequate attention in national space policy.

The report examined:

  • The current state of UK Space Safety Policy
  • The capabilities and expertise of Imperial in Space Safety
  • The potential for Imperial to contribute to the evidence-based development of UK Space Safety Policy

We found that “although Space Safety is an area of growing international importance and fundamental to the UK’s aspirations in space generally, there is no dedicated reference to Space Safety in current UK Space Policy documents. However, the UK has been active in different degrees in the following five Space Safety subject areas: Terrestrial Environmental Impacts of Space Activities; Space Debris; Planetary Defence; Space Weather; and Space Traffic Management (STM).”

The examination of Imperial’s capabilities in these areas shows that Imperial has considerable technical capabilities to inform policy challenges in all five areas, in alignment with the college’s new Academic Strategy.

To deliver this policy impact, we believe that the Space Lab Network of Excellence is very well placed to coordinate and streamline efforts to bring together relevant departments and researchers, and the fruitful collaboration between ISPL and Space Lab provides excellent further opportunities for Imperial to achieve impact in the area of UK Space Safety Policy development.

It’s time to take on Big Tech over Online Harms

Dr Nejra Van Zalk is Head of the Design Psychology Lab at Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering.

The link between social media and online harms for young people has been much debated, and the current pandemic has underlined the particular threat of online harms for vulnerable users. In contribution to a report on the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, I have provided evidence of the addictive features of social platforms being of concern regarding the spread of misinformation to children.

AlarminglyChild using phone, exploiting vulnerabilities in the human psyche is a common feature of the design process for many digital innovations. For example, addictive features such as harmful or factually inaccurate content is often added by design rather than accident so as to increase usage.

Information generated by clicks or smart device commands is now used as a proxy for understanding how an individual is feeling, thus making them the perfect target for advertising and misinformation, akin to emotional manipulation.

To make such innovation easier, tech companies have adopted a user experience research method called A/B testing, similar to Randomized Controlled Trials (RCT’s), as a way to deliver continuous interventions that change the experience of platforms and increase use time. Unlike RCT’s, however, these tests are conducted behind the scenes and without consent, and without the rigorous ethical considerations that form the cornerstone of research.

Despite these gloomy facts, there are positive developments. Recently, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) released their Age-Appropriate Design Code aimed at companies whose content is likely to be accessed by children and young people. It includes 15 standards aimed at increasing children’s online privacy, such as a ban on disclosing data to third parties, high privacy settings by default, and refraining from nudging techniques for increased usage.

Dr Nejra Van Zalk
Dr Nejra Van Zalk

Together with Ali Shah, ICO Head of Technology, I road-tested this code in my “Design Psychology” module at the Dyson School of Design Engineering. Third- and fourth-year design engineering students created browser add-ons that filtered out inappropriate material when accessed by children, as well as digital interventions focused on teaching digital privacy to parents and children built into phone apps. This exercise demonstrated that the oft-repeated maxim by tech companies that such regulations would inhibit growth or creativity does not hold true.

Policymakers must urgently address these issues, including:

  • Holding companies accountable to the code
  • An increased emphasis on industry to work closely with behavioural scientists
  • Treating technological applications as planned behavioural interventions.

Moving forward, I plan to conduct further road-tests of the new design code together with the ICO and my Master as well as undergraduate students. This exercise, besides for providing an investigation opportunity, helps to enforce in students the importance of considering children and young people in technological innovation. I am also conducting research in my lab on emotional privacy together with colleagues from Design Engineering, which will help further understanding about perceived privacy transgressions in people’s emotional lives.

How to effectively engage with All-Party Parliamentary Groups

In this blog post, we will look at:

  • What All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) are and do
  • How you can engage with APPGs
  • How The Forum can help


What are APPGs?

APPGs are informal groups which meet to discuss an issue of concern. They have no official status in Parliament, are cross-party and usually contain members from both the House of Commons and House of Lords.

APPGs focus on a very specific issue – either a country or a subject. As a result, MPs and Lords usually form or join groups whose focus they are very passionate about. This also allows charities, campaign groups and other non-governmental organisations to become more involved in the policy-making process. They often provide a secretariat to run the APPG’s administration.

Unlike House of Commons Select Committees, APPGs do not directly shadow the work of government departments. They will generally be considered effective when they influence debate and change government policy, which due to their informal nature, varies hugely. It can depend on how regularly they meet, who they engage with, the quality of any inquiries and reports they produce and whether their focus is of interest to the Government of the day.

As of January 2019, there were 692 APPGs. To give you an idea of the wide range of APPGs, listed below are just a few APPGs whose topic begins with the letter A:

Moreover, listed below are some APPGs, also just beginning with the letter A, that may be relevant to Imperial researchers:

How can you engage with APPGs?

Forum eventAPPGs are a useful way to engage with MPs, Lords and non-governmental organisations who share a passion for your specific subject area.

  • Inquiry submissions: APPGs can invite written submissions for inquiries, which provides an opportunity to present your evidence to policy-makers.
  • Policy briefing: Even if no inquiry is ongoing, you can still submit a briefing note. This summarises your research, the policy changes you recommend and why it’s relevant to these specific policy-makers.
  • Attend meetings: APPG meetings are free to attend but you may have to register in advance. Contact the secretariat to see if it may be useful for you to speak on your research findings.
  • Host visits: APPGs often organise visits to teach members about various issues. It may be worth inviting an APPG’s members to Imperial to see your research first hand. For example, the APPG on Vaccinations for All visited Imperial’s International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL) in July 2019.APPG on Vaccinations for All visited Imperial‘s International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Human Immunology Laboratory (HIL) in July 2019.

How can The Forum help?

As Imperial’s policy engagement programme, The Forum can help you engage APPGs in various ways.

How to engage with select committees effectively

This blog post is intended to compliment our resources document, Engaging with Parliamentary Select Committees.

In this blog post, we will look at:

  • What select committees are and do
  • What your written evidence submission should look like
  • How The Forum can help

What are select committees?

Select committees are the engine room of parliamentary scrutiny. They are formal bodies but their power and influence is often more informal. They choose their own programme and are cross party.

Select Committees in the House of Commons are charged with overseeing the work of a government department, examining the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments.

Lords Select Committees do not shadow the work of government departments. They consider specialist subjects, taking advantage of the Lords’ expertise and the greater amount of time (compared to MPs) to examine issues. They also invite written submissions.

Select committees will generally be considered effective when they influence debate and change government policy.

A few examples of select committees that may be particularly relevant to Imperial researchers are:

Select committees scrutinise government through inquiries on selected topics. They will set the terms of reference for each inquiry and then invite written submissions from interested parties.

What should written evidence submissions look like?

  • Introduce yourself at the start – what is your background and expertise? What can you contribute to the debate? For example, why your research is particularly relevant and helpful.
  • Formatting is important! Number your paragraphs and use spacing, separating out sections using titles. Put the date at the top.
  • Emphasise your key asks – what do you want to happen? Avoid just stating all the problems – what are the solutions? Think creatively about recommendations – it shouldn’t always be asking for more money.
  • Address the questions the committee is asking. You can quote from other sources, but please cite them.
  • Perhaps the most important one: keep the evidence short, simple, to the point and free of jargon. Staff and parliamentarians looking at the written evidence will be pressed for time.
  • Frame the submission in the public interest. Opinion is useful, but only up to a point – what they really want to see is analysis.
  • The committee will likely reject anything defamatory or items published elsewhere. Do not publish it until they have accepted it as evidence (they will email you to let you know this).
  • Follow the guidance from the Parliament website.

What next?

With any submission, preparation is key, and The Forum is here to help:

  • Come along to one of The Forum’s Policy engagement seminars.
  • Consult our new Upcoming consultations and APPG meetings page on The Forum website, where you can find open consultations you could contribute to.
  • Read Imperial’s submission to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Life Sciences and the Industrial Strategy.
  • If you are submitting evidence, research the members of the committee and read some of their reports.
  • Contact The Forum team to get bespoke support with your draft submission and particularly if you are invited to give oral evidence. We’d be delighted to meet 1-1.

A final thought

Select committees rely entirely on evidence and without it, they can do very little. Therefore, it is in their interest to hear from you – they want the best possible evidence on an issue so they can scrutinise policy effectively.