Online campaigning needs urgent law change: UK Electoral Commission

By Lucy Ingham

The UK’s Electoral Commission has called for an urgent law change to improve the transparency of online campaigning in a report published today.

The report, Digital campaigning: increasing transparency for voters, argues that the UK government should make such changes so that voters are aware that they are viewing campaign material on social media and the wider web.

It also calls for revisions to the way campaigners report spending on campaigns, so that the true extent of a political group’s online campaigning cannot be hidden from voters.

Making online campaigning regulation “fit for purpose”

The report comes at a time when online campaigning has been accused of misinforming voters, intentionally hiding its source to appear ‘impartial’ and even being created by overseas actors who are not legally allowed to involve themselves in electoral campaigning. In the UK, such claims have been most prevalent in relation to Brexit.

There have also been concerns surrounding the misuse of personal data, most notably with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal.

This report is designed to correct the mystery and ease of misuse of online campaigning, by making campaigns and their creators clear to would-be voters.

“Urgent action must be taken by the UK’s governments to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age,” said Sir John Holmes, chair of the Electoral Commission.

“Implementing our package of recommendations will significantly increase transparency about who is seeking to influence voters online, and the money spent on this at UK elections and referendums.”

Labelling online campaign material

At the heart of the recommendations is the call for a requirement for online campaign material to be clearly labelled. Essentially any material created for online campaigning would need to have an “imprint” naming the party, candidate or campaigner who has created it.

Furthermore, social media companies would also need to clearly label UK election and referendum adverts on their platform, so that users know who it is from. Such companies, including Twitter and Facebook, would also need to deliver proposals for an online database of political adverts.

“We recognise that no single body can deal with all of the issues raised by digital campaigning. Social media companies must play their part in transforming the transparency of digital political advertising,” said Holmes.

“This includes ensuring that those that seek to target voters online are actually permitted by law to do so. If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.”

Financial transparency in online campaigning

The other key focus of the report is finances, where it suggests stricter rules on how campaign money spent online is reported.

It also proposes new checks on the use of foreign money in elections, something that is currently very hard to determine in the online space.

Perhaps most significantly for campaigners, it proposes greater financial bite for those who flout regulations. The Electoral Commission has called on the government to give it more powers to obtain information on those failing to follow the laws, and suggests the maximum fine be greatly increased from the current £20,000.