In a victory for voters; campaigners; academics; the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee; and the Electoral Commission, among many others, the government has finally committed to extending imprints (disclosures stating who has paid for and promoted election material) to online campaign material – something which the Electoral Commission has advocated since 2003. This announcement follows on the government’s consultation on Protecting the Debate to which the ERS responded, and which sought views on proposals to protect the electoral system against intimidation and undue influence to improve transparency in digital election material.
The government’s commitment to extending imprints to online election material is an urgent and important first step in ensuring that online spaces are contributing positively to democratic life.
Currently, imprints are required on printed election material and serve to promote transparency about who is campaigning. Requiring a disclosure on political adverts ensures accountability in relation to election materials by making parties and campaigners responsible for their communications. It gives voters confidence in knowing who is communicating with them and is responsible for the production of election material. This system also allows the Electoral Commission to enforce spending rules.
For online election material, however, there is currently limited or no transparency with regards to who is responsible for online election material and is communicating with voters through it. Indeed, voters may be micro-targeted with political advertising without their knowledge of which political campaign has produced the material and what alternative messages are being sent to others.
In its statement, the Cabinet Office recognised the importance of imprints as a way of guaranteeing transparency and the quality of information circulating online, saying that digital imprints are ‘essential for promoting fact-based political debate and tackling disinformation online.’
We do not yet know how the requirement will work in practice, but the Cabinet Office has said it will collaborate with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and others on how to implement the new imprints regime, including which third-party organisations it would apply to.
The extension of imprints to online election material is only one of a package of new measures announced by the government on Sunday to protect the integrity of UK elections, with the Minister for the Constitution Kevin Foster recognising that – as the ERS has long called for – ‘we need to review and refresh our analogue laws for a digital age, and ensure there are robust safeguards against hostile states, foreign lobbyists and shadowy third parties.’
The other measures announced by the government are:
- Legislation to introduce a new electoral offence of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run-up to an election, either in person or online, as a way of tackling intimidation and abuse faced by those at the forefront of public service.
Ensuring that those who campaign and stand for election are protected is an essential part of creating a vibrant democracy and one that fully represents the diversity of the UK. But research by ERS Cymru has highlighted a shocking level of abuse and harassment in politics, which affects all levels of political office and staff supporting politicians. Of 266 Welsh politicians who took part in a survey they undertook, 45.5% confirmed they had experienced some kind of abuse and harassment. Among female respondents this increased to 54%.
- Legislation to clarify the electoral offence of undue influence of a voter, including acts or threats of violence to manipulate someone’s vote, and intimidation inside and outside the polling station.
- A consultation on electoral integrity as a way of strengthening our current provisions and protecting them from foreign influence and interference.
While further details of this consultation have not yet been outlined, the government has said that it may consider ‘recommendations for increasing transparency on digital political advertising, including by third parties; closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections; preventing shell companies from sidestepping the current rules on political finance and on action to tackle foreign lobbying.’
The government’s announcement is an extremely welcome first step towards strengthening our electoral rules and protecting our democratic processes. But more needs to be done to ensure that our analogue rules are fit for purpose for the digital age. In addition to imprints, the ERS is calling for:
- The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable.
- Ensuring that those tasked with enforcing the rules have sufficient enforcement powers and resources, and that any fines or sanctions are meaningful and act as a deterrent against wrongdoing.
- A statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners to clarify existing rules on use of personal data, and establish standards in political campaigning and limits on the use of data in politics.
- A comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. This needs to consider the wider picture of electoral integrity and campaign finance. Whilst it is important to see who has paid for political ads, the source of the funding of those adverts, and of campaigns more widely, is still open to abuse. The ERS supports a comprehensive review of electoral legislation including reforms recommended in the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning report released in 2018 and of party funding more generally, to ensure they are fit for purpose in the digital age.
With the government’s responses to the ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation and to the DCMS committee’s final report on disinformation due imminently, we hope that calls to rein in the digital Wild West and comprehensively review our election rules are given the urgency they deserve.
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