Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has said that social media companies, including Facebook, can no longer be considered “benign platforms” for users.
Her office currently has ten full-time staff investigating the use of personal data on social media for political purposes, and is preparing to release a report this spring.
Denham said there needs to be better regulation and transparency of how political campaigning is run on social media, and better understanding of how algorithms work.
“We want Facebook to do more, we want social media companies to do more around transparency,” she told a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing into “fake news” yesterday.
“At this point nobody is making the argument anymore that these are benign platforms.”
Facebook, Twitter and Google have said they will co-operate with the probe, which involves more than 30 organisations and has served seven information notices so far, with five more to be served this week.
An information notice requires organisations to provide the Information Commissioner’s Office with specified information within a certain time period.
Political party UKIP is the only organisation to have challenged the notice and will appear at a tribunal in May, Denham revealed.
Cambridge Analytica, the political campaigning firm funded by US billionaire Robert Mercer that is credited with helping Donald Trump iwn the US presidential election, is also part of the investigation.
The probe could force social media platforms to reveal exactly how and why users were targeted for political advertising.
Denham said: “We’ve asked the social media companies for a complete description of the ecosystem in which their advertising works.
“What we need to be able to understand for the public is why an individual sees a certain ad, why does an individual see a message in their news feed that somebody else doesn’t see.
“We’re really the data cops here, we’re doing a data audit to be able to understand and to be able to pull back the curtain on the model around political campaigning and elections.”
She said social media can be used for good but that it is important that people are not pushed into “filter bubbles” online “where they won’t have any idea about what other people are saying”.
“Social media is a very powerful and important tool in political campaigning,” she said.
“What’s really important is we make sure that social media is used for good and for increasing participation and bringing people to the table.
“We want more people to participate in our democratic life and our democratic institutions and I think social media is an important part of that.”