Britain’s campaign laws leave our elections open to fake news and manipulation

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Posted on the 29th January 2020

December’s election was the third Westminster election in four years. Each one of those has highlighted a growing crisis facing the UK’s electoral politics.

In an article published by The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Brittany Kaiser has claimed that fake news on Facebook was worse in the December 2019 General Election than in the EU referendum in 2016.

Whether she’s right or not, social media has changed the face of campaigning. The political consultancy firm Kaiser worked for was accused of harvesting of data from millions of Facebook profiles, to ‘micro-target’ voters with highly specific messages during the EU referendum.

Social media data allows companies to know exactly what makes us ‘tick’, from our fast-food order to our opinions on policy issues and voting intentions. It is therefore not hard to see why political parties and campaigners are so interested in this data as a way of directly communicating with voters.

This goes beyond the problem of ‘fake news’ to a broader issue: the failure of our election rules to keep up with the changing nature of political campaigning.

Take online ads: political parties had deep pockets when it came to Facebook advertising in the 2019 election. As the Electoral Reform Society reported, parties and third-party campaigners spent around £5.9 million on this platform alone.  While Facebook has introduced transparency tools to keep track of what parties are saying to potential voters online, the tools have been criticised for being deeply flawed.

Nor is it just about what political parties are saying: Brittany Kaiser suggests that there are now ‘hundreds’ of Cambridge Analytica-like firms, with some specialising in propaganda, spreading disinformation or suppressing campaigns. Our electoral laws are failing to protect us against these threats to our democratic processes.

And it is no wonder, given that the main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning and finance dates back to 2000 – well before many of the most prominent social media platforms, including Facebook, even existed.

The ERS has long campaigned for a comprehensive update to our electoral law – and pressure is growing on the government to act.  A recent Parliamentary inquiry looked at how to overhaul the UK’s ‘loophole-ridden’ system.

Published by the APPG for Electoral Campaigning Transparency and supported by the ERS, the report – Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age – was launched on 20th January from a cross-party group of MPs with evidence from over 70 organisations.

Covering transparency, monitoring and deterrence, the report includes 20 recommendations to protect UK elections and referenda from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’. These include:

  • Establishing a new Office for Election Integrity to ensure wrong-doing does not slip between the regulatory gaps (there are currently a number of regulators with differing responsibilities and powers for overseeing electoral law)
  • Abolishing the cap for fines on breaching electoral law. The current fines can too often be viewed as the ‘cost of doing business’
  • Closing foreign donor loopholes by ensuring all donations have to be UK-based, reducing permissibility check requirements from £500 to 1p
  • Moderating the ability of campaigns to micro-target voters based on personal data
  • Switching to a per-seat cap on total spending, to streamline national versus local spending limits

Successful democracies require an informed, engaged electorate – and proper defences against those trying to rig the debate. There is no panacea for dealing with the threats of disinformation and dodgy campaigning – but it’s clear the current rules are not fit for purpose.

There are many more elections around the corner. It’s vital we keep fighting to strengthen our democratic processes and ensure our defences are fit for the 21st century.

The ERS will be publishing more analysis of Britain’s ‘wild west’ campaign rules soon: watch this space. 

This article was written by Megan Collins, a placement student from Nottingham University

You can join ERS’ campaign to shine a light on ‘dark’ ads by signing our petition.

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