ERS reveals the scale of secretive online campaigning during last year’s election

Electoral Reform Society
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Electoral Reform Society

Posted on the 24th September 2020

Democracy in the Dark – our new report commissioned from two of the UK’s leading election finance academics reveals a major rise in online spending during the 2019 general election – with little transparency over how it was used. 

Nearly a year after the 2019 election, official insights on party spending returns have not yet been published. Even when the official figures are released, lax reporting rules mean voters will be little wiser as to how campaigners were targeting their resources.  

In Democracy in the Dark, Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power have estimated how much was spent on social media platforms by campaigners and parties during the election and tracked the rise of non-party ‘outriders’.   

Online spend increases

In the six weeks before polling day in 2019, the Conservative Party raised more money in donations than all other parties combined during the same pre-poll period in 2017. But little information is available about any of the main parties’ spending online or offline, not least in terms of how they targeted voters. We do know that in 2019 the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google than other parties – roughly triple Labour’s spend.  

Political party spending on 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. However, social media giants’ online ad archives – set up to provide a veneer of political transparency – are insufficient and often error-prone. 

The rise of outriders

Adverts placed by national parties constituted only a fraction of the total campaign spend: we also saw the rise of the ‘outrider’. Sixty-four of these organisations registered in 2019 as a whole and 46 were registered after the election was (officially) confirmed on 29 October. Voters are too often kept unaware of who is behind these opaque outfits.

According to new analysis of Facebook data, 88 UK organisations were listed as non-party campaign groups during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. It is often difficult for voters to work out who is behind campaign material from a non-party actor.  

There is a lack of information available in key areas around the digital campaign such as how much was spent on online, who was behind key election spending, how such messages were targeted, what they said –  and how voters’ personal data was used to do it. 

It is currently ‘exceedingly difficult’ if not impossible to uphold the principles of the UK’s foundational electoral legislation.   

 While the government has committed to legislating for digital imprints to show who is paying for ads, it has not yet set out a clear timeline as to its implementation.  

10 key reforms

In Democracy in the Dark, the authors highlight 10 key reforms – beyond online imprints – needed to shine a light on online political campaigning: 

  1. Require campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed, meaningful and accessible invoices of what they have spent, boosting scrutiny and transparency over online vs offline spend. 
  2. Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission to investigate malpractice and create a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing by increasing the maximum fine it can levy. 
  3. Implement shorter reporting deadlines so that financial information from campaigns on their donations and spending is available to voters and the Commission more quickly after a campaign, or indeed, in ‘real time’. Currently, voters have to wait far too long to see the state of the campaign.  
  4. Regulate all donations by reducing ‘permissibility check’ requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations, and £500 to £20 for cash donations. The current rules are riddled with loopholes and haven’t kept up with the digital age, raising the risks of foreign or unscrupulous interference.  
  5. Create a publicly accessible, clear and consistent archive of paid-for political advertising. This archive should include details of each advert’s source (name and address), who sponsored (paid) for it, and (for some) the country of origin.  
  6. New controls created by social media companies to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are actually based in the UK or registered to vote here.  
  7. New legislation clarifying that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Campaigners should not be able to accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation or loan. 
  8. Legislate for a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns, to clarify the rules and ensure voters know their rights. 
  9. A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation. 
  10. Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework. 

Openness and transparency are the key foundations for any democracy. Yet nearly a year after the general election, voters remain in the dark about who is targeting them online.  

It’s likely that we’ll never get a full picture of who was behind the online ads that so many voters saw during the election, digital campaigning remains an unregulated Wild West, and the government must get to grips with this now. But rather than giving our election watchdog the powers it needs to shine a light on what’s going on, we are instead seeing growing threats made to its future. 

There is near-unanimous agreement that our election rules are not fit for purpose and are undermining our democracy. As technology moves ahead, analogue-age campaign laws are putting the integrity of our elections at risk. But with the clear recommendations for change in this report, we can safeguard against dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation, and restore faith in our democratic system.

We asked the authors for their thoughts on the importance of Democracy in the Dark. Dr Kate Dommett said“This report sets out the clear impetus for change and shows the scale of the challenge we confront. Reflecting on the numerous recommendations that are already out there, we demonstrate the need to move beyond inquiries and begin to act.”  

Dr Sam Power added: “This report shows that in five key areas – money, non-party campaigning, targeting, data use and misinformation – our electoral regulation is being stretched to breaking point. Whilst we present new data, the basic argument is not novel. It contains recommendations that have been repeated again and again by campaigners and policy-makers alike, and reflect genuine public concern in this area.”  

With this report we call on the government to take urgent action, far beyond merely a consultation on digital imprints.

Read Democracy in the Dark here. 

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