Ministers can’t let themselves of the hook when it comes to tackling the social media ‘Wild West’

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 15th April 2019

Last week the government launched a consultation into tackling ‘online harm’. It’s the first step towards dealing with the tech barons of the new ‘wild west’. But ministers can’t let themselves off the hook just yet.

The white paper proposes new measures to regulate internet companies who do not adequately protect their users.

But the proposals do not seem to look at how to close the loopholes where foreign donors and unscrupulous actors can influence our political debate.

Political advertising online is almost completely unregulated, leading regulators, campaigners and academics to launch a united call for a review of Britain’s political campaign laws.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright did confirm that the government was also looking into online political advertising practices. But that consultation closed in October 2018.

The consultation looked at the issue of ‘online imprints’ – closing the loophole where printed political materials must have publisher information but not online ads.

Recent news reports have revealed anonymous groups are pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds into online political ads to steer the Brexit debate – with almost no scrutiny and no way of voters for finding out who funds them. These so-called ‘dark ads’ pose a real danger to our democracy.

Since 2003, the Electoral Commission has been calling for online ‘imprints’, showing who has paid for and published political materials. Yet no government has grasped the nettle and taken the necessary action to update the rules.

We say it cannot be left up to the social media giants to self-regulate. And chance is long overdue: the rules on political campaigning were last properly updated in 2000 – before social media and online campaigning as we know it even existed.

Next month will see the launch of an All Party Parliamentary Group for Campaign Transparency to keep up pressure on the government to act. It’s encouraging to see ministers getting serious about preventing harm online. But there are huge threats to our democracy which mustn’t be ignored.

‘Dark ads’ allow for significant meddling in the democratic process with no scrutiny. As things stand, our political debate is exposed.

In February we set out how to sort out the ‘wild west’:

  1. No more ‘dark ads’: We need to extend the ‘imprint’ requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising. It’s bizarre that physical leaflets have to say who’s promoting them but not online ads.
  2. Opening up campaign finance: We need to improve how campaigners report funding and spending, including reporting social media spend separately, reporting spend/donations in a digital format (rather than the archaic system of scanning hand-written files), and reporting spend/donations in real time during a campaign.
  3. Creating a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, to increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content. In an age of ‘micro-targeting’ thousands of separate messages to small groups, this is vital for trust and transparency.
  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. Now the Electoral Commission’s paltry £20,000 maximum fine for rule-breaking should be uncapped.
  5. Level playing field: We must establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  6. A comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, to make it future-proofed for the digital age.

We can’t hand over political debate to social media giants and wealthy, anonymous actors. It is time to protect our democracy

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