Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy at the Electoral Commission contributed this article for our recent report Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century.
Not so long ago, election campaigning was all about knocking on doors, sending out leaflets and putting up billboard adverts. Over the last few years, we have seen a rapid increase in the use of digital tools in political campaigning. Overall, that’s a good thing: after all, elections depend on participation and on campaigners connecting with voters.
However, our rules and laws have not always kept pace with the increasing use of digital campaigning. For example, while printed campaign materials must carry an ‘imprint’ that sets out who paid for them, the same is not true for online materials. And our public opinion research shows that voters want to know more about who is targeting them with political campaigns online.
Digital campaigning is covered by the UK laws that govern party, campaigner and candidate spending. But we need to see greater transparency for voters. Last June we published a package of practical recommendations to address this.
There are two changes to the law that we want the UK’s governments to bring forward as soon as possible. Firstly, online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners should include an imprint stating who has created them. This would mean that, when voters scroll through their social media feeds and see an eye-catching advert trying to influence their vote, they know who is targeting them.
Secondly, the UK’s governments should update the law so that campaigners are required to provide more detailed information about how they have spent money on digital campaigns. The invoices and spending returns of campaigners often do not provide a clear picture of their digital activities. This needs to change so that these documents give voters greater transparency about campaign spending. It would also give us more information to check whether campaigners are following the spending rules, and a better basis to investigate where we suspect something is not right.
When the UK’s key piece of election law was first designed in 2000, parliament decided that political parties and campaigners needed to report spend on ‘advertising’. Today, this catch-all category makes it difficult to understand what is being spent and where. Campaigners report a sophisticated mixture of digital and offline campaigning as ‘advertising’. We estimate that 42 per cent of campaigners’ spending reported to us at the 2017 UK general election was on digital campaigning, which is an increase from 23 per cent in 2015. We want the law to be changed so campaigners sub-divide their spending returns in a more useful way, and we can understand more about how digital campaigning is growing.
In addition to legislative changes, we want social media companies to take concrete action. Facebook, Twitter and Google implemented differing approaches – with mixed results – before the referendum on abortion in Ireland and at the US midterm elections.
In the UK, we want to see them deliver on their proposals for clarity about where political adverts come from, and to publish online databases of political adverts in time for planned elections in 2019 and 2020.
Over the past year, we have been talking with the social media companies to make sure they understand the UK’s electoral laws and can design their tools to work well here. Facebook has launched a UK political ad library, and we are looking at how much useful information it provides to voters and regulators. We are still waiting to see how others, such as Twitter and Google, will adapt the tools they have trialled in the US to work in the UK. If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.
Another important area where reform is needed is campaigns’ sources of funding. UK election law is based on a clear principle that funding from abroad is not allowed. Since 2013, we have recommended that company donations should be funded from UK-generated activities only. This would require a change to the law in this area, as the current requirement is for companies to be registered and carry on business in the UK – but not for the companies’ funds to have originated through UK-based activities. In the digital era, this is an overdue safeguard to help ensure that online and other campaign activities are not funded by foreign sources.
Finally, the Electoral Commission needs the right tools to enable us to enforce electoral law in the digital era. This includes a significant increase to the maximum fine that we can impose on those who break the rules. This is currently £20,000 per offence. We are concerned that political parties and campaigners will simply accept our current fines as the cost of doing business. We need the power to impose sanctions that genuinely deter breaches of electoral law. We also want clearer powers to compel campaign suppliers, including social media companies, to provide us with information when we suspect the rules may have been broken. These powers would be similar to those recently given to the Information Commissioner.
Taking forward these changes will not resolve all concerns around political use of the internet, and technology and campaigning techniques will continue to evolve. But they would have an important positive impact on transparency, and therefore public confidence in digital campaigning.
The issues raised fall under the responsibilities of a range of bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, so it is right for the Electoral Commission to continue working closely with these organisations.
For our part, we will continue to monitor how campaigners are communicating with voters, and will stand up for voters’ interests and ensure greater transparency in the digital age.
Read Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century