Government challenged over “woeful inaction” on misinformation and analogue-age election rules

Posted on the 29th June 2020

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, for immediate release: 29th June 2020
  • Contact Josiah on 07717211630 / [email protected] for more comment or to arrange an interview

The UK’s leading democracy group has called for the government to move swiftly on modernising Britain’s ‘dangerously outdated’ electoral rules, after a key Lords committee slammed government inaction on the issue.

The Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies report [1], out today, finds that: “Electoral law must be completely updated for an online age. There have been no major changes to electoral law since the invention of social media and the rise of online political advertising.”

Committee chair Lord Puttnam states: “If allowed to flourish these counterfeit truths [i.e. misinformation] will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance.”

The findings backs up the long-standing calls of the Electoral Reform Society, the APPG on Electoral Campaign Transparency, the Electoral Commission, Law Commission, FairVote and many more [see notes].

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

“Despite countless regulators, campaigners and committees calling for action, there has been woeful inaction from the government when it comes to updating Britain’s analogue-age campaign rules.

“The government has promised to implement transparency for online political ads. This should be implemented before next year’s major round of elections. ‘In due course’ is not good enough.

“When it comes to misinformation and transparency, we cannot leave the rules up to the tech giants. These unaccountable firms cannot be the gatekeepers of our political debate. A clear code of practice for online transparency must be the first step to cleaning up their act and safeguarding our election debates.

“The Committee have raised real concerns that tackling
misinformation will be left out of the Online Harms Bill. This would be an unbelievable step back, given the harm we have seen misinformation cause during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our mess of electoral law must be comprehensively modernised, as the Law Commission have called for. But this must not stop vital measures being put in place in the interim – including, at the very least, online ‘imprints’ and strengthening fines for electoral offences. The current fines are the ‘cost of doing business’ for bad actors.

“Our decades’ old electoral law is putting free elections under threat. There are clear points of consensus on the way forward. The government must get to grips with this now before it’s too late. It’s time to rein in the wild west online.”

ENDS

[1] Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust – https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld5801/ldselect/lddemdigi/77/77.pdf

Notes to Editors

Read the ERS’ Reining in the Wild West report for more information on how to bring our electoral law into the digital age – featuring contributions from the Electoral Commission, ICO and leading academics.

The ERS also contributed to the All Party Political Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s January 2020 report Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age. This ground-breaking report set out 20 recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referendums from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.

Last October, the ERS also launched the Loophole List of gaps in our electoral law that are putting democracy at risk. Some of the loopholes mean that donors based in foreign tax havens, or operating through untraceable shell companies can pump in money to influence our political parties. Others allow for unscrupulous individuals to pay for anonymous ‘dark’ ads on line, or pump out disinformation during election periods to sway the result.

An Edelman Trust Barometer poll in January showed that three in five people had lost faith in democracy. The study polled 34,000 respondents in 28 markets and found that only Russia ranked below the UK on public trust. https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/ministers-are-off-the-mark-when-it-comes-to-trust-in-politics/

The failure to update Britain’s electoral laws since the advent of social media has contributed to a worrying fact: voters say politicians are most responsible for spreading misinformation.
A briefing by independent fact-checkers Full Fact also showed that politicians are one of the least trusted professions in the UK, with about 19% of people saying they trust them to tell the truth. Trust in government ministers is similar, with just 22% trusting them.

More information here: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voters-are-worried-about-false-information-online-and-not-from-the-usual-suspects/

Read more posts...

Campaigners call for parties to back ‘vital’ Senedd reforms

Electoral Reform Society Cymru throws weight behind official Committee on Senedd Reform findings: “Now is the time to act to level up Welsh democracy”. Statement from the Electoral Reform Society Cymru – Thursday 10th September...

Posted 10 Sep 2020