Now is the time to bring our campaign rules into the 21st century

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Posted on the 11th February 2019

The Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan MP contributed this piece as the forward to our report Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century

Our democracy is at a critical juncture. We live in a time when our democratic processes face considerable threats from a range of sources – from ‘dark ads’ and fake news, to foreign interference and the misuse of personal data on a monumental scale.

The year 2000 – when our election rules were largely written – was a time before social media as we know it. Twitter and Facebook did not exist. It was a time of floppy discs and dial-up internet. Smartphones were practically unheard of. In short, the ability to rapidly transmit disinformation and channel millions of pounds into campaigns without scrutiny was far more difficult. So much has changed – yet our campaign rules have remained in the analogue age.

If we do not update the rules governing our elections and referendums, the credibility of our elections faces a ‘perfect storm’ of threats, as the chair of the Electoral Commission has warned.

If we do not update the rules governing our elections and referendums, the credibility of our elections faces a ‘perfect storm’ of threats Click To Tweet

The increasing use of online campaigning has exposed the many loopholes that can allow people to circumvent our rules perfectly legally in the digital realm. The traditional principles of fairness and transparency underlying our democratic processes are being undermined by a multiplicity of actors and processes. Online political campaigning has effectively become an unbridled Wild West.

The effects of this online Wild West go beyond these attempts at undermining our rules and regulations. The quality of political discourse itself is under attack, as the Electoral Reform Society showed with their 2016 report It’s Good to Talk: debate has become increasingly polarised and tribal, facilitated by online filter bubbles and echo chambers. This, combined with poor quality information, has created a toxic climate which is stifling genuine political debate.

As rapporteur on referendums for the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, I am well aware of the challenges that face our election and referendum rules – and of the remarkable work that is being done to address these threats.

The need to look at this issue in the round is vital given the huge overlap between the issues involved. Click To Tweet

The need to look at this issue in the round is vital given the huge overlap between the issues involved. Yet to date there has been little to thread these responses and research together. That is why this report brings together an unprecedented range of voices – from regulators to campaigners and academics – to address these challenges and offer solutions on what digital-age campaign regulation would look like.

When faith in the integrity of elections is undermined, democracy suffers. Tom Hawthorn of the Electoral Commission looks at what should be done to enhance voters’ confidence in digital campaigning. He sets out the actions that can and should be taken by legislators and social media companies to update our election rules and increase transparency in digital campaigning.

Academics Martin Moore and Damian Tambini similarly raise the pressing need to update our outdated electoral law, and reinforce the calls made by our regulators to ensure they have sufficient powers to deal with the changes brought about by online campaigning.

In his contribution, Stephen Kinnock MP considers how we can enhance transparency around campaign finance. To this end, in collaboration with Fair Vote and the Electoral Reform Society, he announces the planned launch of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency that seeks to investigate how our democratic processes can best be protected.

Legal expert Bethany Shiner examines the laws surrounding ‘big data’ in politics, and what a statutory code of practice – as proposed by the ICO – should take into account.

Kyle Taylor, founder of Fair Vote, considers how we can constrain the role of money in politics in the digital age and update our election rules. He sets out three areas where urgent reform is needed – such as setting funding caps and modernising spending reporting.

Cassie Staines of Full Fact focuses on misinformation and how best to respond to it. Rather than overreacting to the ‘panic’ about fake news, she highlights that we need to increase our democracy’s resilience against misinformation. She argues any action against misinformation must be proportionate and cautious about potential unintended consequences.

In conversation with the ERS, Deputy ICO Commissioner Steve Wood discusses how the data regulator is navigating the changing environment around the political use of personal data. He speaks about why an ethical pause in political advertising might be the best way of getting different actors to come together, and assesses the powers of the ICO and Electoral Commission.

In their contribution, Doteveryone reiterates their call for the establishment of an Office for Responsible Technology to address the challenges of the existing regulatory landscape. This Office would be an independent regulator tasked with empowering existing and future regulators, informing the public and policymakers about online benefits and harms, and supporting people to seek redress when their digital rights have been breached.

Finally, Josh Smith of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos considers the future of political campaigning in the face of new and advanced forms of technology, such as AI and deep learning. As he argues, technologies should be used to improve our political process – not to manipulate them – and should be clearly understood by users and targets.

The contributors to this report have suggested proposals that are realistic and feasible, some of which would require little change to our existing rules.

A common thread running through all contributions is the urgent need to increase transparency in relation to campaign messaging. As stated in the report I presented to the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, “voters should be able to find out what claims campaigners are making and who is making them. They should also be able to see if campaigners are putting out contradictory messages to different groups of voters or seeking to portray different images of themselves to different voters.”

Though they acknowledge that tech platforms have recently taken some steps in the right direction, all contributors agree that it would be unwise to leave the regulation of online campaigning to private tech companies alone. That is no way to defend the integrity of our democracy, and action is needed to ensure that how we rein in the online Wild West has the best interests of the democratic community as a whole at its heart.

The calls for a comprehensive review of our campaign laws have never been so widespread. Regardless of when the next election or referendum takes place, now is the time to bring our rules into the 21st century – before this spirals out of our control.

Read 'Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century'

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