The need to rein in the ‘online wild west’ is now being recognised

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 29th June 2018

Following a series of scandals around fake news, foreign interference, and misuse of personal data, the Electoral Commission acknowledged earlier this week that “our democracy may be under threat”.

[bctt tweet=”The Commission is calling for urgent action to be taken by the UK’s governments, and social media companies, to increase transparency during election and referendum campaigns.” username=”electoralreform”]

The call comes as the Commission published its report on digital campaigning, in which it responds to the challenges that digital campaigning poses to our electoral system.

They’ve made a series of recommendations on how to improve election rules and strengthen financial regulations, some of which it has advocated for a long time.

Since 2003, for example, the Electoral Commission has called for imprint requirements to be extended to online campaign materials, though this was only ever implemented during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

Other long-standing recommendations include:

  • Requiring campaigners to break down their digital spend into more detailed categories. This would provide both the Commission and the public with transparent and accurate information on the money campaigners spend on online campaigning.
  • Increasing the Electoral Commission’s investigative and sanctioning powers. In this regard, the Commission expressed concern about its current maximum fine limit of £20,000 per offence which “risks becoming a cost of doing business for some campaigners [and] does not provide an effective deterrent to stop campaigners committing offences.”.

The Electoral Commission has also made some recommendations that respond to concerns about alleged foreign interference in our democratic processes. The Commission said, for example, that social media companies should introduce new controls to check that those purchasing political adverts are indeed based or registered to vote in the UK.

Other proposals aim at strengthening rules around donations and the prohibition of spending by foreign organisations or individuals.

While policy makers will want to discuss the proposals, the urgency with which the Electoral Commission is calling for its powers to be strengthened is well places – and these recommendations should be implemented swiftly by the government.

But the Electoral Commission’s proposals do not go far enough in addressing the problems facing our political processes. Indeed, further issues, which fall outside the Electoral Commission’s remit, remain to be addressed in order to safeguard our democracy and restore trust in politics.

Some concerns are being considered by other organisations: the Information Commissioner is investigating the use of personal data for political purposes by campaigners and tech platforms; the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is conducting an inquiry on fake news.

Both are due to report later this year, and their findings will offer additional insight into how we can tackle the challenges of modern, digital campaigning.

While the Electoral Commission’s recommendations are a step in the right direction – and they can only speak for their own remit – a more comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that our electoral system is fit for purpose and to protect our democratic institutions.

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