Facebook recently triggered a major public debate by changing its rules on posts by political campaigners.
Previously these had been open to ‘fact-checking’ by trusted organisations. However, the new decision means the site will not take down politicians’ posts that violate its community standards or label untrue claims as ‘disputed’, in contrast to rival Twitter.
Justifying the move, head of global affairs Sir Nick Clegg said: “Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say?… I don’t believe it would be.”
There are strong arguments and feelings on both sides, not least given evidence of foreign interference in elections via online means.
But Nick Clegg did raise a crucial point: should it be up to social media giants to govern the conduct of our elections? We need democratically-passed laws fit for the 21st century.
In both the EU referendum and the US Presidential Elections of 2016, there were reports of ‘bots’ and ‘fake news’ sites pushing stories that could steer the debate – with little oversight. The question of how to tackle that is now a topic of concerted public conversation.
When there is a need for change but voluntary efforts are not enough, we have to change the law. The primary piece of electoral law came into effect in 2000 – before online campaigning was a serious force.
The last election saw parties spend £3.2m on Facebook alone – more than double the figure in 2015. Yet social media ads can be purchased with relative anonymity.
One urgent change needed is to ramp up political transparency, to ensure that all online political ads must say who is funding them – bringing the rules into line with printed materials. Voters should also know why they are being targeted with that online content.
At present, our analogue-age campaign rules mean our elections are a Wild West – meaning we face the risk of foreign interference in a snap general election.
Earlier this month, the ERS published a new briefing, highlighting the loopholes that make our elections more vulnerable. We cannot allow our elections to be left at the whim of dodgy donors and outside interference. In a way, both sides of this debate are correct:
Facebook and Twitter should be taking action – but setting the rules shouldn’t be at the whim of Silicon Valley CEOs.
Earlier last year, the ERS and many others submitted to the government’s consultation on protecting democracy, with the Society urging the government to require political adverts published online to include ‘imprints’ stating their real origin and funder.
This recommendation has still not been implemented, with the government accused of dragging their feet despite a clear consensus (including backing from the Conservative chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee).
And it’s still difficult to know how much parties and candidates are spending targeting you you’re your personal data online. We need to see legislation passed to implement ‘real-time’ donation reporting during elections – so the general public know what is being spent during an election to steer the debate. Reporting of social media ads should be clear, online and separated from other forms of spend. And gifts – whether ads or otherwise – to campaigns of less than £500, absurdly aren’t treated as ‘donations’ at present. They should be clearly listed for what they are.
Meanwhile the Electoral Commission’s maximum £20,000 fine for breaking what few rules we have can currently be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’, while the Electoral Commission lacks the investigatory powers of other regulators. The Electoral Commission’s maximum fines must be significantly increased and its investigatory powers bolstered.
It is scandalous that despite knowing about these issues for a long time, no action has been taken. Instead of dealing with potential foreign donors and unscrupulous influencers, the government are targeting ordinary people through undemocratic plans for mandatory voter ID.
That’s why we’re calling for emergency legislation to close the loopholes and strengthen our democracy. The Queen’s Speech promised action later in the year on online political ads – but these will not come into effect before a December election. There’s not long to act – but act we must.
Sabine McGinley is a Communications Placement Student for the ERS, from the University of Nottingham.
Sign the ERS’ petition for the government to act on ‘dark ads’ now