By Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission
Not so long ago, the only time some people would know that an election was happening would be when a handful of leaflets came through the door, or placards appeared in a few front gardens.
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. Today we have published a package of practical recommendations to address this. Whilst digital campaigning does not escape our current regulatory system, if taken forward, these recommendations would meaningfully increase transparency for voters.
There are two changes to the law that we want to see as soon as possible. Firstly, online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners must have an imprint stating who has created them. This would mean that when voters scrolling through their social media feeds see an eye-catching advert trying to secure their vote, they know who it is that’s targeting them.
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 the law was first designed in 2000, Parliament decided that political parties and campaigners needed to report spend on ‘advertising’. Today, digital campaigning can be highly sophisticated and involve micro-targeting of voters. But the spending returns of campaigners often do not provide a clear picture of their activities. This needs to change so that everyone has to provide the same, detailed information, giving voters greater transparency over campaign spending.
In addition to legislative changes we want to see concrete action taken by the social media companies. They are making the right noises about being more hands on when it comes to what political adverts are posted on their platforms. They are clearly wrestling with this issue themselves, as we have seen from the different approaches taken prior to the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, and we will watch with interest their actions ahead of the US midterm elections later this year. Our view is that they need to deliver on their proposals for clarity about where political adverts come from and for online databases of political adverts in time for UK elections in 2019 and 2020. If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.
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 and ensure greater transparency in the digital age.