Ministers accused of ‘dangerous inaction’ over online dark ads

Posted on the 12th May 2020

Meanwhile the government is pushing ahead with mandatory voter ID – despite only one proven case of impersonation fraud in the whole of 2019.

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, Tuesday 12th May, 2020.
  • Contact Josiah on [email protected] / 07717211630

Campaigners have expressed concern after Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith refused to set a timeline for closing Britain’s election loopholes today.  

At today’s House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee hearing [1], Chloe Smith MP dodged questions about the need for transparency over online political ads in time for next year’s elections.

Despite clear consensus [2] on the need to ensure online political ads say who is funding them – and examples of abuse during last year’s elections [3] – ministers have so far failed to even set out a timeline for making this simple change.

Regulators, MPs, researchers and democracy campaigners simply want to equalise the law between printed and online materials, as the first step in bringing Britain’s Victorian electoral law into the 21st century.

While some social media giants have implemented online ad archives, these have proved woefully insufficient [4], with cases of data going missing, unusable platforms, poor search functionality and low levels of detail (Facebook’s ad archive does not give detail on how users were targeted, for example).

The minister also said the UK’s “elections are secure and are robust” (11:36 in) – yet the government continues to press ahead with mandatory voter ID plans. There was just one proven case of voter impersonation in the whole of 2019 [5].

While the Electoral Reform Society acknowledge the coronavirus crisis has affected the work of Parliament, it has been over a year and a half since the government’s ‘Protect the Debate’ consultation, where an overwhelming majority of respondents are understood to have called for online imprints.

The ERS are calling for legislation to be drafted ready for Parliament’s full return.

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

“It has been over a year and a half since the government first consulted on ‘protecting the debate’. Yet despite an overwhelming consensus to clamp down on anonymous ‘dark ads’ online, there’s been zero action. We simply cannot go into next year’s major round of elections without the loopholes in our electoral law being closed.

“We need more than warm words: to protect our democracy in the digital age it’s time to respond to the Wild West in online campaigning and close the loopholes at last. Chloe Smith notes many of our electoral laws are ‘Victorian’. Sadly that’s only too true, and the integrity of our elections is totally undermined by a failure to respond to new threats.

“Ministers must commit to implementing online imprints before next May’s elections – as the first step in making our institutions fit for the 21st century. We cannot leave our rules at the whim of social media giants.”

Voter ID

“The minister noted that voting is ‘secure and robust’, yet continues to push ahead with plans for force all of us to show ID at the polling station. This is passing the buck at best, and partisan gerrymandering at worst. There was just one proven case of ‘personation’ fraud in the whole of 2019 – yet the government insist on imposing this ‘show your papers’ policy.

“Ministers must not chase red herrings while ignoring the very real threats of foreign interference and secretive funding of our politics – risks highlighted by regulators, academics and democracy campaigners time and time again.”

ENDS

Notes to Editors

[1] Watch the session here: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/94a59f9e-6424-4aef-baaf-295020eccfae

Chloe Smith: “I don’t think I could give you the promise that it [online imprints] would be in place for the May 2021 collection of elections…although I understand your logic that it would be desirable to do that”

11:39: Chloe Smith: “There should be no need to think at the moment that we’re in some way vulnerable to interference right now”

The ERS have set out over a dozen loopholes in current electoral law that leave the UK open to foreign/unscrupulous interference https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/report-campaign-loopholes-put-free-and-fair-elections-under-threat/

[2] https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/publications/reining-in-the-political-wild-west-campaign-rules-for-the-21st-century/

[3] See https://www.ft.com/content/f42f9aa2-16ba-11ea-8d73-6303645ac406 and https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/revealed-former-vote-leave-data-chief-accused-pro-tory-disinformation/

[4] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-51384858 and https://www.ft.com/content/e6fb805e-1b78-11ea-97df-cc63de1d73f4

[5] https://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/who-we-are-and-what-we-do/our-views-and-research/our-research/electoral-fraud-data/2019-electoral-fraud-data

The government responded to its Oct 2018 ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation in May last year, noting that: “The majority of respondents suggested that imprints should be required on all digital election material, regardless of spend.” https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/799873/Protecting-the-Debate-Government-Response-2019.05.01.pdf

Read the ERS’ 2018 ‘Protecting the Debate’ response: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/parliamentary-briefings/response-to-the-protecting-the-debate-consultation/

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