Parties have become even more secretive about their online campaigning

Jessica Blair, ERS Cymru Director

Posted on the 29th September 2020

Openness and transparency are the key foundations of any democracy. But today we find too much of our politics is shrouded in secrecy. Too often voters remain unsure about who is behind the messages they read, who is behind the information that shapes their political views, and ultimately their votes.  In no area is this truer than online campaigning.

Nine months on from the general election, we still have little idea how much money was spent in the campaign. But even when the data is published by the Electoral Commission, huge gaps will remain in our understanding of how voters were targeted – and by whom. Democracy is about empowering citizens so that they can actively take part in our political processes and make an informed decision at the ballot box. Transparency, fairness and accountability in political campaigning are key to ensuring this is possible. But while technology offers huge opportunities for political engagement, the current system – if it can be called that – is an unregulated Wild West.

Indeed, the Electoral Commission’s own post-election research found that ‘[m]isleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust in election campaigns’ and that the ‘significant public concerns about the transparency of digital election campaigns risk overshadowing their benefits’.

Democracy in the Dark, a new report commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society and written by Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power, sheds light on campaigning in the 2019 general election.

For the first time, the authors reveal how much was spent on social media platforms by campaigners and parties during the election, and track the rise of non-party ‘outriders’, with all the associated secrecy.

However, it’s not enough to just point out the risks. Dommett and Power also summarise the many sensible, proportionate and easily implementable recommendations, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus, as to how we can restore trust in our democratic processes. These reforms would shine a light on the murky world of unregulated online campaigning, focusing on five key areas: 1. Money; 2. Non-party campaigns; 3. Targeting; 4. Data; 5. Misinformation.

Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. Recommendations include closing funding loopholes, creating national standards for social media ad transparency and ensuring voters can easily see who is targeting them and why.

Since we published our report Reining in the Political Wild West in 2019, countless calls have been made across the political spectrum in support of reform and there continues to be strong and long-standing cross-party support to tame the unregulated Wild West of online political campaigning.

Yet despite repeated calls for reform, little action has been taken. Strikingly, far from becoming more transparent, the authors find that in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, parties and campaigners have become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.

In terms of progress, the most significant step has been the launch of a consultation on extending the use of imprints to include online election material – a necessary step, but which on its own is woefully insufficient.

Such limited efforts have further been undermined by alleged threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. Rather than enhancing the Commission’s powers and resources so that it can tackle the challenges of the modern age, the body tasked with protecting our democracy is under unprecedented attack.

With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more.

Read the full report Democracy in the Dark

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