For too long now, online political campaigning in Britain has gone effectively unregulated – to the benefit of well-funded, secretive groups, and to the detriment of voters.
Despite the rapid rise of online political ads as a campaign tool, governments have been slow in ensuring voters know who is targeting them online.
In the absence of action to update the rules of the game, we have seen countless individuals and campaigners operate covertly – able to hide who is behind the material trying to shift our political debate. That’s despite printed election leaflets having to state clearly who is behind it, with an ‘imprint’ disclosure.
An Ofcom study last year found that nearly half of adults in the UK now use social media to get their news. At the same time, political party spending on social media platforms is likely to have increased by over 50 percent in 2019 compared to 2017 – with around £6 million spent on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google by the three main UK-wide parties alone.
As voters transition to more online-based sources of information – and big money is poured into targeting voters on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms – we need some basic transparency.
Without that, trust in our elections will only decline as voters become less clear who is steering our political conversation. But change is on its way.
A step in the right direction
The Scottish Government recently confirmed that before the Holyrood parliamentary election takes place in Scotland next year, new legislation will be in place that ensures online political ads – like printed ones – have to say who is paying for and promoting them.
The details on how Scotland’s legislation would work in practice are currently being consulted on, with the policy due to be implemented in time for Scotland’s parliamentary election in May 2021.
The UK government has also pledged to introduce the same requirement, though worryingly, no timeline has been set – despite a major round of local elections taking place in England next May. The ERS is pushing for reform now.
Implementing this long overdue legislation will help address some of the damage done to people’s faith in our democratic processes following a series of ‘dark ad’ scandals in the last election.
As noted in the ERS’ latest report, Democracy in the Dark, parties and non-party outriders were able to covertly target voters using stacks of personal data, abusing loopholes in the law. The absence of digital imprints for political ads meant that this could be done without scrutiny, with voters not even having the bare minimum of transparency about who was targeting them.
Imprints are a welcome and necessary, but woefully insufficient, first step to enhancing transparency and trust in online campaigning. We also need clear standards for national ‘ad archives’, showing what was spent by political groups, where, and how they targeted voters. While social media giants have, under pressure, set up some limited transparency tools, there are major flaws which mean journalists, researchers, regulators, civil society groups and voters struggle to find the real picture.
Following the welcome announcement in Scotland, pressure needs to be put on the UK government to act quickly – so that the 2019 general election will be the last one where voters were in the dark.
Akash Thiara is a Placement Student with the Electoral Reform Society from the University of Nottingham.
Sign the ERS’ petition to close the ‘dark ads’ loophole now