Campaign regulation is needed now before all trust is gone

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 24th July 2018

The need to tighten the rules around how political parties and campaigns target voters online is a hot topic right now.

Last week’s fines against Vote Leave for overspending (and breaching other key rules) in the EU vote were just the latest in a recent saga which have put our election regulations in the spotlight.

But the consequences of the online wild west go well beyond the results of individual elections and referendums.

[bctt tweet=”The lack of effective rules around online campaigning is potentially undermining trust in politics.” username=”electoralreform”]

This lack of trust has been highlighted in a new poll conducted for the Centre for Policy Studies.

[bctt tweet=”Two in five (40%) of more than 2,000 UK adults surveyed said they did not trust the House of Commons’ elected representatives and non-elected officials ‘to do the right thing’ by them if contacted on an issue.” username=”electoralreform”]

Just one in twenty (5%) said they trusted the Commons “a lot” with a further 37% stating they trust it “a little”.

The report that accompanies this polling proposes, amongst other things, reforms to online campaigning including a digital imprint on online political adverts stating who is funding them.

The report also discusses the ‘micro-targeting’ of political adverts i.e. when a campaigner thinks it’s worth some people seeing their material – but not others. The recommended solution is that targeted adverts should be accompanied by an explainer stating the logic behind the selected audience.

Neither of these proposals are new. The Electoral Commission has been calling for imprints for a long time and similar recommendations also formed part of the discussions when the Electoral Reform Society held a major event in parliament this month in to attempt to pave a way forward for a comprehensive overhaul of regulations.

There is a consensus building around the kind of action required to plug the gap which has been created by outdated legislation.

At the weekend, 45 cross-party MPs put their name to a letter calling for reforms to electoral law.

This too called for imprints on paid digital ads and “simpler access to advertising targeting information within two clicks or less.”

It is encouraging to note that the foreword to the CPS report was authored by David Lidington MP, the Minster for the Cabinet Office – suggesting the door is open for updating rules designed for an ‘analogue age’. In it, he states that improving transparency in politics “can only be a good thing – and it is needed today more than ever.”

There is a sense of urgency and a desire for action which is widespread among politicians, and which appears to stretch as far as the Cabinet.

With the next elections never far away, let’s get a handle on the digital wild west before it spirals out of control.  

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