Online campaigning is a wild west – it’s time we knew what parties were up to

Katie Ghose
Author:
Katie Ghose

Posted on the 30th May 2017

If 2015 was the digital election, this one is more specifically the Facebook election.

With the big money rolling into the social media giant from parties – Labour and the Conservatives are planning to spend a million pounds each on the main giants – the issue has understandably caught the media eye.

So, it’s good to get a bit of perspective here. Political parties have harvested data and targeted individual voters for decades. That’s nothing new. This time is slightly different, though.

What we do know is this is now being supplemented by mass data gathering online – email and social media. Parties are also increasingly buying in data – especially on the demographics of voters, from their level of household debt to how their music tastes reflect on their psychology as voters – all to assist with ‘micro-targeting’: if you’re a fisherman in the Shetlands, there’ll be an ad for you.

The issue here isn’t that they’re collecting this information, it’s how the sheer quantities of it are used. And that is to target messages at very select groups with potentially contradictory information: we don’t have a clue know what the campaigns are telling these groups. That’s a transparency issue – and it’s worrying that some parties are actively refusing to disclose who they’ve been going after.

Usually we could rest assured that after the election all this would become clear. But the rules are vague when it comes to online campaigning: they were drawn up for an analogue world. And while there are rules to keep a level playing field – to avoid a race to spend the most and buy the election – national parties paying to target areas as small as streets are classing that as ‘national’ expenditure.

So the regulations just haven’t caught up with the digital age – partly because of this distinction between ‘local’ and ‘national’ spending being hard to define when it comes to social media: they can be hyper-local, but also nationally-funded.

Few parties are innocent on this front: online campaigning is the wild west of modern politics, and it’s those with the deepest pockets who benefit.

Dealing with this isn’t easy. Digital is more ‘slippery’ and hard to capture than traditional activities. And all this matters too because First Past the Post elections are an arms war in the marginals. Parties can be dodging local spending limits by directing ads at small group in swing seats – while totally ignoring millions in the electoral deserts we see across the UK.

Of course, all this is the tip of the iceberg: we need reform of party funding more generally – a lower cap on spending in general to level the playing field, but also more clarity about what can be classed as local vs national (given the ‘scandals’ we’ve seen this past year or two), and for the regulations to be in constant review as the digital age changes how politics is done today. Things shift quickly in the online Wild West.

Finally, there’s a grim irony here. Parties are becoming masters of online democracy – yet our own institutions are years behind. While parties go full-throttle with digital engagement, people still can’t even check if they’re even registered to vote online. And our election statistics are woefully paper-based, leading to absurdities like the fact we still have no real idea the turnout for the English locals this month (it’s not been collated).

Digital campaigning is great when it aids participation and collective debate. Less so when it’s part of a ruthless ‘picking off’ of voters operation. It’s good to see the Information Commissioner and others investigating this issue: in the supposed age of openness, it’s about time voters had some clarity about what Britain’s parties are up to on the web.

This article was first published by the Times

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