Political party campaigning has shifted dramatically online in recent years. To give just one example: political parties spent around £1.3 million on Facebook adverts during the 2015 general election. This more than doubled two years later, with parties spending around £3.2 million on Facebook in the 2017 campaign.
That’s why we published our new report Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Why We Need Campaign Rules for the 21st Century to coincides with the 15th anniversary of Facebook’s launch. It is also 19 years since our main election rules were created. 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.
As the use of online political campaigning has grown, so too have concerns about the implications for our democratic processes. Though online campaigning is not new, it has changed significantly in terms of scale, reach and sophistication.
Underlying these concerns is the fact our rules have not kept up with the shifting nature of campaigning, and our regulators appear powerless in the face of threats. Despite recent scandals, online political campaigning remains an almost entirely unregulated Wild West.
This has implications for the principles of transparency, fairness and the notion of a level playing field that are supposed to govern our elections.
Imprint requirements, for example, apply to campaign material in print, but not online. This means that voters cannot be certain of who created an online political advert. It also has implications for the spread of mis- and dis-information: purveyors of false or misleading information cannot be held to account if their identity cannot be verified.
‘Dark ads’ can be micro-targeted to individual voters who may not be aware of the fact they are being targeted, and why. As these ads are visible only to the creator and the individual or group being targeted, different voters can be targeted with conflicting information without the sender facing any scrutiny.
These techniques as well as playing into tribalism and polarisation in politics are also moving democratic life outside of our shared public space.
The shift to online campaigning also creates problems for regulating money in politics and for attempts to create a level playing field. With online material, cost does not have the same direct correlation with reach that it does with printed materials: lower spending does not necessarily mean fewer people seeing the ads.
Additionally, reporting of spending online is subject to limited regulatory oversight (parties, for example, do not need to provide a breakdown of social media spend). This makes it now easier than ever to blur what is spent at the local/constituency level and nationally. In this context,spending caps appear increasingly meaningless.
Traditionally, most political campaigning occurred around fixed political moments (elections and referendums) given the time, financial and resource costs involved. This is reflected in the two main pieces of legislation governing party campaigning – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 and the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 1983. But the cheap and easy access to new campaigning techniques available online means that political parties have shifted to low-cost, 24/7 campaigning, outside of regulated periods.
The growing role of a handful of private tech companies and external agencies exacerbates these concerns. Tech platforms do not have the same liability as traditional news outlets, and the fact that they are not based in the UK raises jurisdictional and regulatory enforcement concerns. External agencies are increasingly involved in data collection and analysis, including outside of regulated campaign periods, but the extent of their involvement remains hard to ascertain.
For all these reasons, we support the proposals that are put forward by the contributors to this report:
- In the short term, extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending are two of the most readily achievable solutions. The government seems to recognise this and its consultation on imprints was a welcome and important first step in this regard.
- The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
- Those charged with enforcing the rules should have sufficient enforcement powers and resources. That must involve 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.
- Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
- More broadly, the ERS is calling for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process. Alongside efforts to improve the quality of public debate itself, this could transform the murky world of online campaigning into a force for good.
There has been considerable work around campaign regulation in recent months – such as by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, and by many contributors to this report.
We cannot risk another election or referendum being undermined by dodgy donors, dark ads and disinformation. Now is the time for politicians and parties to take charge of this issue. Political will is needed to fix these problems and secure our democratic processes.
Online political campaigning has the potential to increase citizens’ participation in our political processes significantly. The cheap and easy access to information, and the fact that everyone has – at least theoretically – equal voice online are important democratising features of digital campaigning. But our rules and laws need to be sufficiently robust to protect us from the potential threats of online campaigning while allowing us to reap its benefits.
One thing is for sure: this is even bigger than Brexit. Let’s give it the priority it deserves.
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