“The Electoral Commission has called for urgent reforms to electoral law after a series of online political campaign scandals, acknowledging concerns that British democracy “may be under threat”.
Following a series of revelations involving the likes of Cambridge Analytica, the elections regulator has asked Westminster and the devolved governments to change the law in order to combat misinformation, misuse of personal data and overseas interference in elections.
Among other recommendations, the Electoral Commission has called for:
A change in the law to require all digital political campaign material to state who paid for it, bringing online adverts in line with physical leaflets and adverts.
New legislation to make it clear that spending in UK elections and referendums by foreign organisations and individuals is not allowed.
An increase in the maximum fine, currently £20,000 per offence, that the Electoral Commission can impose on organisations and individuals who break the rules.
Tougher requirements for political campaigns to declare their spending soon after or during a campaign, rather than months later.
A requirement for all campaigners to provide more detailed paperwork on how they spent money online.
The intervention follows years of debate about the largely unregulated world of online political campaigning in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum and Donald Trump’s election as US president.
“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.”
His organisation also backed proposals to publish a database of political advertisements that will enable the public “to see what adverts a campaigner has taken out and how much they paid”. Facebook is already due to launch such a facility for UK political adverts within the coming months.
The regulator, alluding to foreign governments such as Russia, also raised concerns that there is currently no explicit ban on overseas organisations buying online political ads aimed at a British audience. …
… A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The government is committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning in order to maintain a fair and proportionate democratic process, and we will be consulting on proposals for new imprint requirements on electronic campaigning in due course.”
The Electoral Commission has also asked for the power to investigate individual political candidates if they have broken constituency spending limits in general elections. At the moment only the police can investigate such allegations, resulting in the long-running investigation into Tory candidates’ spending on battle buses, which was dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service due to insufficient evidence.
Other proposals include pushing political parties to count online advertising targeted at local constituencies within individual candidate spending limits – which can be as low as £10,000 – rather than as part of national campaigns which are allowed to spend up to £19.5m. During the 2017 general election the Conservatives were able to target Facebook ads regarding local issues at individuals in specific constituencies and count it as national spending – just so long as they didn’t mention the name of the local Tory candidate.
Both Labour and the Conservatives spent substantial sums of money on online promotions during the last general election, with digital spending accounting for more than 40% of all advertising spending by political parties in 2017. …”