In these divided times, a new consensus is emerging around our broken election laws

Jessica Garland
Author:
Jessica Garland

Posted on the 31st July 2018

Fresh off the back of our call for Parliament to take action on Britain’s analogue-age campaign rules – and the launch of our petition for an end to ‘dark ads’ – commentators and public figures are now pressing for change.

In today’s Times, Hugo Rifkind rightly notes that the need to update Britain’s outdated campaign rules goes far beyond Brexit:

“The great public conversation itself has been usurped by an almost infinite number of hidden private ones. This, in a small nutshell, is the big problem.”

Hyper-targeted online adverts – which hone in on voters’ individual lives and traits – could help to improve political engagement, but there are also great risks. Click To Tweet

As voters only see the adverts targeted at them, campaigners can hide behind thousands of so-called ‘dark ads’ – potentially allowing disinformation to slip in with no scrutiny on the national stage.

If not adequately addressed these problems could dangerously undermine our democracy. But fortunately, there are solutions.

One which has received widespread support – not least from the Electoral Commission and Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – is for online political adverts to carry an ‘imprint’ – which clearly states who commissioned them and paid for them.

We can go further, noting which audiences are being targeted, alongside an online resource of active political advertisements on social media sites – reducing the risk of unaccountable ‘dark ads’ steering our debate.

It’s vitally important the lack of regulations on targeted adverts is addressed promptly, to ensure voters can have trust in our democratic system. Click To Tweet

This is the challenge of our time – and we must face it head on.

On Sunday, Matthew d’Ancona wrote in the Observer:

“There could easily be a general election in the next 12 months. In May, voters will go to the polls in 270 English local authorities…If you are not concerned by the extent to which these contests are vulnerable to digital sabotage, then you should be.”

It’s true: Britain’s outdated campaign rules are not ready for another election.

Unfortunately, no matter the gravity of campaign regulation breaches, the Electoral Commission is toothless at holding wrongdoing to account. The Commission’s maximum fine of £20,000 per offence now appears to be the ‘cost of doing business’ for campaigners.

But a consensus is emerging that we need to update of Britain’s outdated campaign regulations.

With every day, more people are noting that we’re all at risk in the online ‘wild west’, but we can rein it in – and put democracy back in charge.

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