Theresa May has called on Facebook to co-operate with a parliamentary inquiry into fake news after founder Mark Zuckerberg refused to appear in person.
The social media billionaire’s decision to instead send a senior executive to give evidence to the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was branded “absolutely astonishing” by its chairman.
The disclosure came amid a report by CNN that Zuckerberg had agreed to testify to Congress in the United States over the release of millions of users’ data details to the UK firm, Cambridge Analytica (CA).
Appearing before the Commons Liaison Committee on Tuesday, Mrs May said: “Mr Zuckerberg will decide for himself whether he wants to come before the committee but what I hope is that Facebook will recognise why this is so significant to people, why people are so concerned about it and ensure that the committee is able to get to the answers that they want.”
Earlier Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee chairman Damian Collins insisted Zuckerberg himself was “the right person to give evidence” and repeated his call for him to face MPs either in person or by video link.
Speaking after the committee took three and a half hours of testimony from whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, Mr Collins said: “Given the extraordinary evidence we have heard so far today… I think it is absolutely astonishing that Mark Zuckerberg is not prepared to submit himself for questioning in front of a parliamentary or congressional hearing, given that these are questions of fundamental importance to Facebook users as well as to our inquiry.
“I would certainly urge him to think again if he has any concern for the people who use his company’s services.”
Mr Wylie is a former employee of Cambridge Analytica (CA), which allegedly used data gathered from Facebook users in its targeted messaging on behalf of Donald Trump’s election campaign in the US.
He said he believed the closely linked Canadian company AggregateIQ had played a “very significant” role in securing a Leave vote in Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership.
And he claimed that a representative of the company, which also did work for the pro-Brexit BeLeave, DUP and Veterans for Britain campaigns, told him that its activities were “totally illegal”.
He said he “absolutely” believed that AIQ drew on CA databases in the campaign, telling the committee: “Cambridge Analytica would have a database and AIQ would access that database, otherwise the software wouldn’t work.”
Mr Wylie said it was clear when he made a pitch for work with Vote Leave in late 2015 that the campaign had no database to work from, but that the situation changed after it hired AIQ shortly afterwards.
“My question is where did you get that data? How do you create a massive targeting operation, in a country that AIQ hadn’t previously worked in, in two months?” he asked.
Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings dismissed Mr Wylie as a “fantasist-charlatan” in a blog post written while the pink-haired whistle-blower was still giving evidence.
By the time inquiries by the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner’s Office were complete, “the Observer will look really silly for making a hero out of a fantasist-charlatan, we’ll already have left the EU, and Zoolander will need a new look,” predicted Mr Cummings.
But Mr Wylie insisted that AIQ had a record of “converting” around 5-7% of voters who viewed its material.
And he said: “I think it is completely reasonable to say there could have been a different outcome of the referendum had there not been, in my view, cheating…
“It makes me so angry because a lot of people supported Leave because they believe in the application of British law and British sovereignty and to irrevocably alter the constitutional settlement of this country on the basis of fraud is a mutilation of the constitutional settlement of this country.”
“This is a company that has worked with hacked material, this is a company that will send out videos of people being murdered to intimidate voters, this is a company that goes out and tries to illicitly acquire live internet browsing data of everyone in an entire country,” said Mr Wylie.
“I think a lot of questions should be asked about the role of AIQ in this election and whether they were indeed compliant with the law here.”
Mr Wylie dismissed as “weasel words” AIQ’s insistence that it was not a part of the SCL Group which founded CA to work on the American election, describing the Canadian firm as a “franchise” operation.
The testimony to the committee from CA’s suspended chief executive Alexander Nix that CA had not used Facebook data was “categorically untrue… not only misleading, but dishonest”, he said.
Asked if he hoped his disclosures would bring SCL and CA down, he replied: “Frankly, yes. Nothing good has come from Cambridge Analytica.
“It is not a legitimate business. SCL is not a legitimate business. I don’t think that they should remain in business.”
In a letter to Mr Collins, Facebook’s head of public policy Rebecca Stimson said that the company would be putting forward chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer or chief product officer Chris Cox to answer MPs’ questions.
Both are among Facebook’s longest serving senior representatives and are “well placed to answer the committee’s questions on these complex subjects” straight after the end of Parliament’s Easter recess on April 16, she said.
Mr Collins said the committee would be happy to issue an invitation to Mr Cox, but made clear that he was not withdrawing the call for Mr Zuckerberg to give evidence.
“Facebook has got many questions to answer that their executives have failed to answer in previous appearances before our committee,” he said.
“Given the seriousness of these issues, we still believe that Mark Zuckerberg is the right person to give evidence… He stated in interviews that if he is the right person to appear, he will appear. We think he is the right person and look forward to hearing from him.”
Mr Zuckerberg’s refusal to appear was branded “cowardly (and) completely unacceptable” by Labour deputy leader Tom Watson.
In a statement, Cambridge Analytica dismissed Mr Wylie’s evidence as “false information, speculation, and completely unfounded conspiracy theories”.
“Chris Wylie was a part-time contractor who left Cambridge Analytica in July 2014 and has no direct knowledge of the company’s work or practices since that date,” it said.
“The suggestion that Cambridge Analytica was somehow involved in any work done by Aggregate IQ in the 2016 EU referendum is entirely false.
“Beyond an early-stage sales pitch to Vote Leave, Cambridge Analytica had no interaction with that group or any of their vendors.”