Targeting voters with digital communications is now common practice, but with this have come concerns about allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference. In this guest blog, Sir John Holmes urges action by the UK’s governments and parliaments to address voters’ concerns and increase the transparency of online activity, as set out in a new Electoral Commission report on digital campaigning.
The last decade has seen an explosion in the use of digital tools in political campaigning. Overall, that’s a good thing. After all, elections depend on participation and on connecting with voters.
However our rules and laws have not kept pace with the increasing use, some may even say reliance, on digital campaigning. In response to this, the Electoral Commission has published a report with a package of practical recommendations to address this. Whilst digital campaigning does not escape our current regulatory system, taking forward these recommendations would significantly increase transparency for voters and increase their confidence that online campaigns are following the UK’s electoral rules.
Of the seventeen recommendations in our report, there are two changes to the law that we want to see as soon as possible. Firstly, the law should be changed so that online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners have an imprint stating who has created them.
Online imprints would allow voters to see easily who has paid for and produced political adverts, just as imprints on printed material already do. They would also help us enforce the spending rules, because we would have a better idea of who may need to register and submit a spending return after an election or referendum. Of course, the CSPL also recommended the introduction of online imprints in their review of intimidation in public life.
The UK Government has said it will consult on our recommendation, which is welcome. We believe it will provide voters with clarity on what they are seeing online, and should therefore be a priority.
Secondly, the UK’s governments should update the law so that campaigners are required to provide detailed information about how money has been spent on digital campaigns. When campaigners currently declare their spending to us there is no specific legal category for digital activity. These categories should be revised, and we have suggested that a sub-category to record what medium or format was used for the campaign activity could be an effective way forward.
We also want to see campaigners provide more detailed and meaningful invoices from their digital suppliers, including which groups of people they targeted online. The law does not state the level of detail that should be included in invoices, but this needs to change in the digital age. Showing what messages were used online, which parts of the country they were targeted at, and how much was spent would all help improve transparency of political campaigning.
In addition to legislative changes we want to see practical action taken by the social media companies, as do the CSPL. We have welcomed their commitments to greater transparency, and now call on them to deliver their proposals for clarity about where political advertising is coming from, and for online databases of political adverts in time for UK elections in 2019 and 2020. If this voluntary action is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.
With increasing concerns about overseas interference we are also keen to see social media companies put in place new controls to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are legally permitted to do so. This would be a further step to stop campaign funding from outside the UK.
Finally, the Electoral Commission needs further powers to enable us to enforce electoral law in the digital era. This includes a significant increase to the maximum fine that we can impose on those who break the rules. This is currently £20,000 per offence. We are concerned that we risk political parties and campaigners seeing our current fines as the cost of doing business. We need the power to impose sanctions that genuinely deter breaches of electoral law. We also need stronger powers to obtain information from parties and campaigners in real time, similar to those recently given to the Information Commissioner.
Taking forward these changes would have an important impact on transparency in digital campaigning and on public confidence. They will not resolve all the concerns around political use of the internet. Technology and campaigning techniques will evolve further. The issues raised by this fall across the responsibilities of a range of bodies, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, as well as those of the Electoral Commission. For our part we will continue to monitor how voters are being targeted and speak out to defend their interests.