Responding to the rise of digital campaigning

Bob Posner, Electoral Commission Director of Political Finance and Regulation & Legal Counsel

Effective campaigning is, and always has been, an important part of elections and over the last few years we have seen this move more and more into the digital realm. With this we have seen an increase in more sophisticated uses of data, more personalised and targeted messaging, and the capacity for campaigners to do much more, at a lower cost than ever before.

The Electoral Commission is responsible for regulating and enforcing the rules made by Parliament that govern political campaign finance in the UK. While it is for political parties and campaigners to determine how best to use the campaign techniques now available, our priority is to make sure that appropriate transparency is maintained and to ensure voters’ confidence in the system.

The current political finance rules apply equally to modern forms of campaigning and to traditional ones, with voters entitled to expect the same transparency. Digital campaigning brings a scale, speed and specificity that cannot be matched by leaflets, billboards or other more familiar types of political advertising, but it is regulated in exactly the same way. Campaigning can only be financed from permissible donations, payments made for digital campaigning must be reported to us, and we will publish them as we do with all campaign spending.

We have a responsibility to enforce the political finance rules and have specific powers to do so. Alongside this, we also have a wider responsibility to look forward and report to the UK Government and to Parliament about how electoral law might be improved or modernised to reflect changes in campaigning techniques. We have made some important proposals in this area before, such as that online campaign material – like its printed equivalent – should be required in law to include an imprint stating who has published it. We have also recommended how the law might be amended to make campaigners report more detailed breakdowns of spending, including on different types of advertising. The time has come for these important matters to become legal requirements.

Utilising our experience of regulating the Scottish Independence Referendum, the EU Referendum and the recent general elections, we are considering the use of digital campaigning alongside our electoral system. We are taking a wide definition of digital campaigning for these enquiries, including the use of data held by parties, campaigners and social media companies to target campaign messages, how political ads are used on social media, and the use of automated bots.

Should our enquiries provide us with evidence that the existing campaigning rules about political finance may have been broken then we will undertake our own investigations as set out in our Enforcement Policy. As is our normal practice if we believe other, criminal, offences may have been committed, then these will be referred to the police for investigation. Where we feel that a wider change to the law is required, or action needed by others, then we will report to the UK Government and to Parliament as we are required to do. We will also make direct recommendations to Scottish and Welsh government and respective legislatures, where they have remit to consider changes to the law.

We will not be looking at the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including mis-information; despite some misconception, this is not within the remit of the Electoral Commission. That does not mean that government and parliament may not wish to consider such matters.

Our enquiries build on learning from our investigations and post electoral event reports. They include discussions with parties and campaigners that use digital campaigning and discussions with social media companies about how their platforms are used and how their proposed self-regulation would operate. This includes speaking to Facebook and Twitter about political advertisements during the referendum and general election. We are already working with the Information Commissioner’s Office about the inquiry it is conducting into the use of personal data in politics, and with other bodies, and we will also seek to work with others with expertise in this fast changing world. This work will help us as we consider the implications for the way campaign finance rules apply to digital campaigning.

It is for the Government, and ultimately Parliament, to determine whether changes should be made to the law and, if so, what they should be; but behind our work remains a determination that campaign finance laws are fit for purpose and that parties and campaigners will comply with them.

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