Facebook transparency on political ads still leaves rest of internet an unregulated ‘wild west’

Posted on the 16th October 2018

The move comes just before the deadline for a government consultation on ‘imprints’ for online political ads. 

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, for immediate release, 16th October 2018.
  • Spokespeople are available for interview/further comment. Contact mediaoffice@electoral-reform.org.uk

The Electoral Reform Society have said Facebook’s move to make political advertising on the platform more transparent [1] must be only the first step towards reining in the online ‘wild west’. 

The move comes just before the government consultation closes [2] on whether to ensure online political ads – like printed ones – should have ‘imprints’ showing who is behind the material. The ERS are backing the recommendation in their submission this week.

Jess Garland, Electoral Reform Society Director of Research and Policy, said:

“Facebook have made the right choice in opening up about who is paying for political ads online. But while this is a welcome move towards transparency, the internet remains an unregulated wild west of ‘dark ads’ with gaping legal loopholes. Government action is still absolutely vital and pressing.

“While printed political materials must say who is behind them, there is no such rule for online ads – meaning there’s little to prevent foreign states or unscrupulous individuals and companies interfering in our political debate.

“The integrity of our elections cannot be left to the whim of individual companies. While Google and Twitter have made steps towards ad transparency in the US, for UK voters the internet remains a free-for-all where voters have no idea who is pushing an agenda or to whom. The UK’s analogue-age election rules are a meddlers’ charter that leave our elections vulnerable.

“The government’s current consultation on online ‘imprints’ – which closes on Monday [2] – means we have a chance to close some of the loopholes at last. Maintaining the integrity of our elections is fundamental to our democracy. Facebook’s move to act before it is compelled to do so is a start – now let’s rein in the wild west.”


Facebook’s changes mean voters will still have little information on why they are being targeted for a particular ad, and leaves it in company’s hands to determine what is ‘political’ or what is ‘fake news’.

The ERS are calling for a comprehensive review of campaign regulations to ‘bring them into the 21st century.

Last week the ERS warned that the integrity of UK elections is under threat from ‘analogue-age’ campaign regulations, following comments from Hillary Clinton that Russia interfered in the Brexit vote: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/clinton-speech-integrity-of-uk-elections-under-threat-from-analogue-age-campaign-regulations-say-ers/

Earlier this month the Atlantic Council published: “Democracy in the Crosshairs: How Political Money Laundering Threatens the Democratic Process” which showed how exposed our electoral system is to foreign interference and finance: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/democracy-in-the-crosshairs-how-political-money-laundering-threatens-the-democratic-process

The ERS and other democracy organisations are calling for:

  • An imprint for online adverts stating who paid for them and published them
  • Checks by social media platforms to ensure those wanting to purchase political adverts during elections are based in the UK and registered to vote here
  • Greater transparency and monitoring of companies/trusts donating to UK parties and campaigns
  • A cap on the amount that can be given to a party or campaign to end the ‘big-donor culture’ and the ‘arms race’ in campaign spending
  • A comprehensive review of campaign rules to bring them into the 21st century


Noted to Editors

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-45866129

[2] Consultation link: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/protecting-the-debate-intimidation-influence-and-information

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