Next election is at risk of foul play and foreign interference  without campaign reform, warn regulators, campaigners and academics

Posted on the 4th February 2019

15th anniversary of Facebook: Electoral Reform Society publish extensive analysis of UK’s ‘dangerously out-dated’ campaign rules, joining together the Electoral Commission, academics and MPs for the first time.

Britain’s electoral laws are ‘dangerously out of date’ and are putting our democracy at risk, a coalition of civil society figures and public bodies are warning on the 15th anniversary of Facebook’s launch.

The report, ‘Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century’[1] brings together regulators, academics and campaigners for the first time to demand comprehensive campaign reform.

The contributors – regulators, campaigners and academics alike – are demanding a review of Britain’s political campaign laws, which were last updated in 2000: before social media and online campaigning as we know it even existed.

In the report:

Conservative MP the Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan MP says: “We face threats on a monumental scale: from ‘dark ads’ and fake news, to foreign interference and the misuse of personal data. If we do not update the rules governing our elections and referendums, the credibility of our elections is at risk.”

Stephen Kinnock MP, who sits on the Brexit select committee, announces the planned launch of an All Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency. He makes four clear proposals for regulatory reform, arguing “Our democracy is crumbling.”

Dr Jess Garland, Director of Research and Policy at the ERS says Facebook election spend by parties doubled from 2015 to 2017, and it is likely to grow further at the next election. She argues the issue of campaign rules is ‘bigger than Brexit’.

Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy at the Electoral Commission calls for legislative action on social media companies if they fail to make political ads transparent. The EC call for legal change to ensure digital ‘imprints’ showing who paid for a political ad, and for the UK’s governments to update the law so that campaigners are required to provide more detailed information about how they have spent money on digital campaigns. Hawthorn also calls for stronger sanctioning powers for the Electoral Commission, and highlights that 42 per cent of campaigners’ spending reported to us at the 2017 UK general election was on digital campaigning – an increase from 23 per cent in 2015.

Academics Martin Moore and Damian Tambini show that ‘much of what would be considered unfair or wrong is, in fact, perfectly legal’, backing up the regulators’ case for change.

Bethany Shiner, Law Lecturer at Middlesex University, warns that it is currently unclear if methods using personal data to reveal or infer sensitive information, such as political views, are consistent with the Data Protection Act 2018.

Kyle Taylor, Founder and Director of the Fair Vote Project, lays out three proposals to avoid a US-like arms race in UK political campaign spending, calling for real-time financial reporting by campaigns.

Cassie Staines, Senior Policy Officer for Full Fact argues we cannot rely on social media companies to act in the public interest when it comes to mis/disinformation and campaign transparency. She also warns: “Currently, it is possible for a candidate to run a thousand different political campaigns in the same election, promising something different to each group it targets.”

Jacob Ohrvik-Stott, Researcher for Doteveryone, calls for a new ‘Office for Responsible Technology’ to make digital campaigning more socially responsible. “Regulators need to get ahead of emerging challenges, such as fabricated political ‘deep-fake’ videos and the next generation of behavioural profiling practices.”

Josh Smith, Senior researcher at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, Demos, predicts that ‘deep learning’, wearable technology and voter profiling will become political campaign tools in the near future. He finds that one company promises to help find sympathetic voters through their phone’s presence at political events and follow them home with advertising. Another offers ‘voter file enhancements’, providing electoral rolls fleshed out with data on income, occupation, education, likely marital status, ethnic and religious identification, magazine category subscriptions, pet ownership and so on.

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

“With talk of a fresh general election or referendum heating up, the need to bring Britain’s outdated election laws into the 21st century is urgent.

“Today marks 15 years since the launch of Facebook – a social media giant that has changed how campaigning works. Yet our campaign rules remain in the dark ages and online political campaigning remains an unregulated wild west.

“For the first time, this report brings together regulators, campaigners and academics to call for an update to Britain’s dangerously out-dated political campaign rules.

“Make no mistake: our democracy is under threat from dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation, but with the right rules online campaigning can be a real force for good. The government should listen to these vital proposals and take action before it’s too late.

“The next election or public vote sees a real risk of foreign interference and dodgy dealings if action isn’t taken now. Let’s get on with it.”

There are six key calls in the report:

1.       In the short term, extending the imprint requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising

2.       Improving how campaigners report funding and spending, including separate reporting for social media spend, and digital reporting of spend/donations

3.       The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.

4.       Giving the regulators greater enforcement powers, strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.

5.       Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.

6.       It is time for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age.

Political parties spent around £1.3 million on Facebook during the 2015 general election. This more than doubled two years later, with parties spending around £3.2 million on Facebook in the 2017 campaign.


Notes to Editors

[1] Embargoed link – not for sharing: Reining in the Political Wild West Campaign Rules for the 21st Century

In 2016 the ERS published ‘It’s Good to Talk’ – a review of the conduct of the EU referendum. The ERS called for a systematic review into how we do referendums in the UK in the future, with the publication making nine key recommendations to improve how referendums are conducted. It followed what was widely viewed as a poor quality debate characterised by ‘party spats’ rather than real deliberation.

Read more press releases...

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