Twitter ad ban: General Election remains at risk from ‘dark ads and disinformation’, campaigners say

Posted on the 31st October 2019

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, 31st October 2019
  • Contact [email protected] / 07717211630 for more information or interview bids. 

Twitter’s global ban on political advertising [1] must not distract from the need to update rules governing online campaigning, experts warned today.

Twitter has announced it will ban all political advertising worldwide. However, UK political ad spend on Twitter was less than £60,000 during the last General Election. The ERS say this move will look like ‘window dressing’ -and does nothing to change the underlying fact UK electoral laws haven’t been updated since the year 2000.

The ERS are calling for legislation as soon as Parliament returns after the election to ‘close the loopholes’ and strengthen democratic integrity.

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“Twitter’s move will make little difference to the overall picture: online campaigning – whether through sponsored posts or organic – has totally changed since our electoral law was written in 2000, and this election is wide open to ‘dark ads’, dodgy donations and disinformation.

“The problem is not sponsored political ads but the fact that social media is an unregulated wild west. Parties don’t have to break down social spend separately to print material, or report spending in real time. Nor do non-party campaigners have to reveal who is really behind or funding their materials. Foreign individuals can pump huge resources – financial or otherwise – into online campaigning with almost no oversight. Twitter’s PR stunt will do little to change this reality.

“When there is a need for change but voluntary efforts are not enough, we have to change the law. The last election saw parties spend £3.2m on Facebook alone – more than double the figure in 2015. Yet social media ads can be purchased with relative anonymity. It’s time to open up the dark ads – not through tech giants’ window-dressing ‘transparency’ tools but through a fully open online database of campaign ads.

“We have to start with bringing the rules on ‘imprints’ into line with printed materials. Voters should also know why they are being targeted with that online content. At present we face the real risk of foreign interference in a snap general election and voters being none the wiser.

“We need a code of conduct for online campaigning – with a firm commitment not to spread fake news or disinformation, and freedom for independent fact-checkers to flag dubious content. And the regulator, the Electoral Commission, must be given real teeth – no more tokenistic fines for wrongdoing.

“Setting the rules shouldn’t be at the whim of Silicon Valley CEOs. It’s time to stop passing the buck and protect our democracy.”

ENDS

Read the ERS’ ‘Reining in the Wild West’ report: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/reining-in-the-political-wild-west-campaign-rules-for-the-21st-century/

Notes to Editors

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50243306

Earlier this month, the ERS published a new briefing, highlighting the loopholes that make our elections more vulnerable. It includes flaws in Facebook ad archive: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Fair-elections-under-threat-The-Loophole-List-1.pdf

The ERS have warned this election is at risk from unscrupulous actors: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/media-centre/press-releases/snap-election-risks-being-undermined-by-dark-ads-and-dodgy-donations-without-emergency-legislation/

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