We can’t leave political transparency to the whim of big tech firms: it’s time for a campaign overhaul

Robert Cox
Author:
Robert Cox

Posted on the 23rd October 2018

When an election is just around the corner, there are several tell-tale signs: politicians incessantly visiting factories, thousands of signs strapped to lampposts, and tensions mounting at the dinner table.

And there are the flyers. Most households will get at least one, featuring the incumbent’s face and a bullet-point list of what they are pledging to achieve for the local area.

If you are lucky enough to live in a hotly-contested area – a marginal constituency in which your vote could really impact the result – then you could find yourself with a dozen or so dropping through your letter box.

But what if one candidate was being undermined or promoted – without telling you who was behind that material? Or if lies were being spread with no way to hold them to account? How can you take on dodgy claims or misleading promises if you don’t know who’s promoting it?

To help ensure elections are transparent, all printed election materials are required by law to include an imprint to show who is responsible for its production.

This imprint must feature the name and address of both the printer and the promoter of the material i.e. the person who has authorised the material to be printed, and who it’s for.

Armed with this invaluable information, a voter is able to use their own judgement to decide on the material in front of them.

If they want to seek out further information about the author of any material, they can do so.

In today’s digital age, you might expect the same rules to apply to election adverts published online. Unfortunately, they do not.

Electoral Commission guidance states: “As good practice, we recommend that you should put an imprint on electronic material, such as websites and emails.

“The imprint should include the name and address of the promoter and the organisation on whose behalf it has been produced.

“You should include an imprint unless the size or format of the election material would mean that the imprint is not legible.

“Where it is impractical to place the full imprint on the election material you should consider how to provide some other means for the material to be associated with you.”

Sadly, this is guidance and not law, meaning it can be ignored.

Just last week it was revealed that an anonymous group funded hundreds of thousands of pounds in Brexit campaign ads on Facebook.

The only people who know the financial source are Facebook bosses. Not even the House of Commons culture select committee investigating fake-news is able to find out.

The schism between the laws for printed and for digital election ads desperately needs filling to protect our democracy. Click To Tweet

We must be able to scrutinise information from those who seek to influence our vote – and an essential requirement of being able to do this is knowing the source itself.

Just as printed election materials require an ‘imprint’ saying who is behind it, online ads should too.

The current legislation was designed for an analogue age: we now need to bring our campaign rules into the 21st century to deal with the many threats our democracy faces.

While Facebook have been pushed to open up about political ads in recent weeks, the government has been accused of dithering.

Ministers have just finished consulting on changes to improve political transparency in the online wild west.

We’ve submitted our views, calling for an update of the UK’s analogue-age campaign regulations. Let’s hope they listen.

Sign our petition for 21st Century electoral law

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