On Tuesday this week (26th June), the Electoral Commission published a report calling for urgent action to be taken by the governments and parliaments of the nations of the United Kingdom, as well as by social media companies, to improve transparency around the targeting of voters online. Ironically, the Electoral Commission's website is about as transparent as lump of coal, so you might want to click on the link below if you'd like to know more.
Key recommendations for urgent reform include:
- Changing the law so that online materials produced by political parties, candidates and campaigners have an imprint stating who has created them, just as they do currently in print media.
- Revising spending returns to require detailed information about how money has been spent on digital campaigns.
- Obliging social media companies to label each UK election and referendum advert on their platforms to make the source clear, and to deliver proposals for online databases of political adverts.
- Granting greater investigatory powers for the Commission to obtain information, and the power to impose tougher sanctions.
The Commission’s job is to make recommendations about modernising electoral law to reflect changing in campaigning techniques and its' report was prompted by concerns about the increasing use of online and targeted digital communications with voters, allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference.
The commitments made by social media companies to greater transparency in political campaigns have been welcomed by the Commission, but it has asked them to deliver their proposals for online databases of political adverts in time for UK elections in 2019 and 2020, presumably ahead of any "People's Vote" on Brexit, given the concerns about social media campaign around the referendum in 2016.
In view of concerns about foreign interference in our elections and referenda, the Commission has also asked social media companies to impose measures to check that anyone who wants to pay to place ads about UK elections and referendums is legally permitted to do so. The Commission also recommends new checks to prevent foreign money from being used to influence UK elections.
At the moment, the Commission can only impose fines of up to £20,000 and so it is seeking a significant increase to the maximum fine, as well as greater powers to obtain information in real time and outside a specific investigation.
The Commission would also like there to be further consideration of how to give voters information about campaign spending more quickly after a campaign, or even during it, because at the moment, campaigners have up to 6 months to submit their spending returns. So by the time we, the voters, know that the limits have been breached, its far too late.
Of course, even if these reforms are implemented in time for a second Brexit vote, we will still need to find a way of stopping certain politicians, mentioning no names, Boris, from knowingly propagating misleading and unsubstantiated statistics despite repeated requests to desist from the head of the UK Statistics Authority. That would take a regulator for the contents of political advertising, which is not easily done in a democracy (although I am happy to volunteer for the role).
"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. 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" Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission