Action needed to tackle misinformation and protect integrity of next year’s elections – new report

Posted on the 21st April 2020

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, for immediate release, 21st April 2020 
  • Contact [email protected] / 07717211630 for more information, comment or interviews via Zoom/phone

Campaigners have pointed to ‘real democratic shortcomings’ in the 2019 election, after a new Electoral Commission report [1] highlighted major pressures on Britain’s electoral process.

The report says: “The UK’s electoral administration structures are operating under significant strain, and…people have growing concerns about some aspects of election campaigns” – including misinformation and misleading campaign tactics. Nearly one in five people said they were not confident the 2019 election was well-run.

The UK’s official election regulator notes that: “Misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust” – with clear examples at the 2019 election, including rebranding the Conservatives’ Twitter account to ‘FactCheckUK’, and manipulation of videos.

The Electoral Reform Society – the UK’s leading political reform group – is calling [2] for swift action to ensure all online campaign ads include an ‘imprint’ outlining who is promoting and paying for the material, as well as clear national standards for social media giants’ ‘ad libraries’.

The Commission note in their report: “It is too often unclear who is behind digital election campaign material. Significant public concerns about the transparency of digital campaigns risk overshadowing their benefits.”

The Commission also point to huge strains for Electoral Returning Officers, under Britain’s ‘patchwork’ voter registration system, operated by hundreds of separate local authorities with no automation. The regulator is calling for moves towards automatic registration, “integrating registration applications into other public service contacts” and departments.

However, the government has consistently ‘kicked the can down the road’ when it comes to electoral reform – despite an overwhelming consensus for adopting online ‘imprints’ for political ads. “The UK Government needs to make progress on its planned consultation on legislation to ensure campaigners have to include information about themselves on digital campaign material,” the Commission states.

There were widespread flaws and inconsistencies in the social media giants’ online ad libraries during the 2019 election, according to the ERS. Both the ERS and Electoral Commission are calling for more detailed, accurate data across platforms.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“This report is a call to action, to bolster Britain’s struggling democracy. Sadly the government has often kicked the can down the road when it comes to introducing simple, consensus-driven reforms that we need – such as ‘imprints’ for online ads.

“The coronavirus crisis has shown the need for swift action to tackle misleading information online. But parties also need to put their house in order when it comes to misinformation.

“Britain’s analogue-age election campaign laws leave us open to dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation. Campaigners and regulators have made repeated cross-party calls for action. When this crisis is over we hope to see real progress to ensure next year’s elections are truly free and fair.”

On voter registration: “It is no wonder EROs are under strain: the current voter registration system incentivises millions of duplicate registrations, and huge surges in applications at EROs’ busiest time. It is not beyond the wit of Whitehall to let people check if they’re already registered, and allow voters to register when they engage with public bodies.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors

[1] https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/who-we-are-and-what-we-do/elections-and-referendums/past-elections-and-referendums/uk-general-elections/report-overview-2019-uk-parliamentary-general-election#challenges

[2] The ERS has previously published extensive analysis of loopholes in current electoral law: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/report-campaign-loopholes-put-free-and-fair-elections-under-threat/

2019 report from the ERS, ft. regulators, academics and campaigners on UK’s ‘wild west’ election rules https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/reining-in-the-political-wild-west-campaign-rules-for-the-21st-century/

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