‘Urgent need’ to update election laws

Written by Julian Blake, Editor, DigitalAgenda

As Facebook turned 15 this week, the Electoral Reform Society has published analysis of what it calls the UK’s “dangerously out of date” election campaign rules that fail to respond to the challenges of the social media age.

Britain’s “dangerously out of date” electoral laws are putting our democracy at risk “of foul play and foreign interference”, a coalition of civil society figures and public bodies led by the Electoral Reform Society pressure group has warned this week, on the 15th anniversary of the launch of Facebook.

The ERS has joined forces in publishing the report with parliament’s official elections regulator, the Electoral Commission, alongside campaigners, academics and MPs, for the first time. It follows evidence that emerged last year of data breaches and use to influence polling in the UK, including during the Brexit referendum, and the rise of fake news on social media.

Last year, MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee published a damning report on fake news, warning of a “democratic crisis” without social media regulation.

This week’s ERS report, Reining in the Political Wild West Campaign Rules for the 21st Century, “demands comprehensive campaign reform”. It calls for a review of Britain’s political campaign laws, which were last updated in 2000 before social media and online campaigning as we know it existed.

The report says Facebook election spend by political parties doubled from 2015 to 2017 – up from £1.3m to £3.2m – and is likely to grow further at the next election.

ERS director of research and policy Dr Jess Garland said: “With talk of a fresh general election or referendum heating up, the need to bring Britain’s outdated election laws into the 21st century is urgent”. She said that Facebook “has changed how campaigning works. Yet our campaign rules remain in the dark ages and online political campaigning remains an unregulated wild west.”

Insisting that the issue of campaign rules was “bigger than Brexit”, Garland added: “Make no mistake: our democracy is under threat from dark ads, dodgy donations and disinformation, but with the right rules online campaigning can be a real force for good. The government should listen to these vital proposals and take action before it’s too late.”

Stephen Kinnock MP, who sits on the Brexit select committee, announced plans to launch an all-party parliamentary group on electoral campaigning transparency. He has made four proposals for regulatory reform, arguing that “our democracy is crumbling”.

The powers of the Information Commissioner’s Office have increased in the past year – and last week imposed a £120,000 fine on the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign for data breaches.

Tom Hawthorn, head of policy at the Electoral Commission regulator, called for legislative action on social media companies if they failed to make political ads transparent. The commission said legal change would ensure digital “imprints” showing who paid for a political ad, and for the UK’s governments to update the law so campaigners are required to provide more detailed information about how they have spent money on digital campaigns.

Hawthorn also called for stronger sanctioning powers for the Electoral Commission, highlighting that 42% of campaign spending reported at the 2017 UK general election was on digital campaigning – an increase from 23% in 2015. “The next election or public vote sees a real risk of foreign interference and dodgy dealings if action isn’t taken now. Let’s get on with it,” he said.

Josh Smith, senior researcher at the Demos Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, predicted that ‘deep learning’, wearable technology and voter profiling would become political campaign tools in the near future. He found one company promising to help find sympathetic voters through their phone’s presence at political events and following them home with advertising.

Doteveryone researcher Jacob Ohrvik-Stott repeated the think tank’s call for a new Office for Responsible Technology to make digital campaigning more socially responsible. “Regulators need to get ahead of emerging challenges, such as fabricated political ‘deep-fake’ videos and the next generation of behavioural profiling practices,” he said.

ERS recommendations

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising
  2. Improving how campaigners report funding and spending, including separate reporting for social media spend, and digital reporting of spend/donations
  3. A single online database of political adverts, publicly available and searchable, to increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced content
  4. Giving regulators greater enforcement powers, strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing
  5. Parties and the government to properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay
  6. A comprehensive review and overhaul of UK electoral law, updated and future-proofed for the digital age.

Reining in the Political Wild West Campaign Rules for the 21st Century


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