The government needs to move swiftly on modernising Britain’s ‘dangerously outdated’ electoral rules, according to a key Lords committee.
The Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies’ new report finds that: “Electoral law must be completely updated for an online age. There have been no major changes to electoral law since the invention of social media and the rise of online political advertising.”
The findings backs up the long-standing calls of the ERS, the APPG on Electoral Campaign Transparency, the Electoral Commission, Law Commission, FairVote and many more.
Committee chair Lord Puttnam states: “If allowed to flourish these counterfeit truths will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance.”
He’s right. Despite countless regulators, campaigners and committees calling for action, there has been woeful inaction from the government when it comes to updating Britain’s analogue-age campaign rules.
The government has promised to implement transparency for online political ads. This should be implemented before next year’s major round of elections. ‘In due course’ – the government’s non-existent timeline – is not good enough.
When it comes to misinformation and transparency, we cannot leave the rules up to the tech giants. These unaccountable firms cannot be the gatekeepers of our political debate. A clear code of practice for online transparency must be the first step to cleaning up their act and safeguarding our election debates.
The Committee have raised real concerns that tackling misinformation will be left out of the Online Harms Bill. This would be an unbelievable step back, given the harm we have seen misinformation cause during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ERS recently contributed to the All Party Political Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s Defending our Democracy in the Digital Age study. This ground-breaking report set out 20 recommendations on how to protect UK elections and referendums from ‘dirty money and dodgy data misuse’.
And just last October, the ERS also launched the Loophole List of gaps in our electoral law that are putting democracy at risk. Some of the loopholes mean that donors based in foreign tax havens, or operating through untraceable shell companies can pump in money to influence our political parties. Others allow for unscrupulous individuals to pay for anonymous ‘dark’ ads on line, or pump out disinformation during election periods to sway the result.
All this matters because trust in democracy is at rock bottom. An Edelman Trust Barometer poll in January showed that three in five people had lost faith in democracy. The study polled 34,000 respondents in 28 markets and found that only Russia ranked below the UK on public trust.
The failure to update Britain’s electoral laws since the advent of social media has contributed to another worrying fact: voters say politicians are most responsible for spreading misinformation. It’s time to take on the challenges of fake news and undue electoral interference.
Our mess of electoral law must be comprehensively modernised. But this must not stop vital measures being put in place in the interim – including, at the very least, online ‘imprints’ and strengthening fines for electoral offences. The current fines are the ‘cost of doing business’ for bad actors.
Our decades’ old electoral law is putting free elections under threat. There are clear points of consensus on the way forward. The government must get to grips with this now before it’s too late. It’s time to rein in the wild west online.”
Read the ERS’ Reining in the Wild West report for more information on how to bring our electoral law into the digital age.