Online campaigning is the 21st century’s wild west – and the Cambridge Analytica saga is a very stark reminder that we have to conquer the new terrain.
The main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006) existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns.
So the rules on campaigning haven’t caught up with the digital age. Parties and campaigns can collect huge quantities of personal information with little oversight.
This matters, because information can change how people think and behave and is often the basis on which people vote: if you can control information and know in detail how it affects people’s behaviour, you can influence democracy.
This is not new – but the difference now is that it can be done much more extensively and stealthily than in the past.
We know what newspapers print, we know what material candidates put through people’s doors but online. It is harder to know who is being targeted, what they are being targeted with and who is behind it.
This has obvious implications for the regulation of campaign spending, particularly for spending limits (and differentiating between local and national spend). If it can’t be seen, it can’t be regulated. So we must be able to see what is being done with our data.
In the instance of Cambridge Analytica, it appears that this went beyond usual practice – and there are clearly some very big questions to answer.
But with Parliament accusing Facebook of misleading MPs, social media giants look like they’ve been asleep at the wheel while unscrupulous agencies harvest our most personal information for political and financial ends.
And in failing to update the scrutiny and oversight of online campaigning, parties are not free from blame either. We are witnessing a massive concentration of power beyond even the normal huge inequalities in our democracy. We need to bring our regulations as well as transparency and scrutiny into the 21st century. It’s time for a root-and-branch review of campaigning rules and enforcement.
How to do that will need to come from civil society, the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission – and it might also require new powers and resources for over-stretched watchdogs.
It is clearly up to the government to defend democracy and to legislate and regulate to ensure that our data is not being abused and that we are not being unknowingly ‘mind melded’ by political campaigns. We should also think how we build up voter resilience to these techniques.
How do we do that?
For now, a major issue is the lack of disclosure – we simply don’t know what the campaigns and media giants are up to with our data, let alone what third parties are doing with it.
What we do know is that this problem is systemic – in the latest reporting round, most of the parties have failed in some way or other to submit full accounts (missing invoices, inaccurate returns etc).
If the main political parties can’t even get the basic accounting bit right, how on earth can the Electoral Commission keep track of all this additional more opaque activity?
In the meantime, the investigations continue. But in the medium term, we’ll need to have a serious review of how we run – and monitor – online campaigns in the years ahead. This is too important to ignore.