Digital campaigning: Increasing transparency for voters
- The rise of digital campaigning
- Who runs digital campaigns?
- Spending on digital campaign activity
- Who pays for digital campaigns?
- Enforcing the rules
The last decade has seen an explosion in the use of digital tools in political campaigning. Perceptions have also changed in that time. The use of social media was first heralded as a positive revolution in the mass engagement of voters. More recently we have seen serious allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference. Concerns that our democracy may be under threat have emerged.
The Electoral Commission oversees the delivery of elections and is the regulator of political finance in the UK. We work to ensure that parties and campaigners understand and comply with the laws about elections. We investigate where offences may have been committed. We also make recommendations about how to improve the fairness and transparency of our democracy.
On digital campaigning, our starting point is that elections depend on participation, which is why we welcome the positive value of online communications. New ways of reaching voters are good for everyone, and we must be careful not to undermine free speech in our search to protect voters. But we also fully recognise the worries of many, the atmosphere of mistrust which is being created, and the urgent need for action to tackle this.
That is why, over the past year, we have looked in detail at how digital campaigning was used in the EU referendum and the 2017 general election. We have researched public opinion, to understand voters’ views on these issues. And we have thought hard about how best the Commission can help to increase transparency and trust in the areas where we have responsibility.
This report is the result of that work to date. We set out a series of recommendations for immediate action to improve election rules and strengthen financial regulations. Funding of online campaigning is already covered by the laws on election spending and donations. But the laws need to ensure more clarity about who is spending what, and where and how, and bigger sanctions for those who break the rules.
This report is therefore a call to action for the UK’s governments and parliaments to change the rules to make it easier for voters to know who is targeting them online, and to make unacceptable behaviour harder. The public opinion research we publish alongside this report demonstrates the level of concern and confusion amongst voters and the will for new action.
We also call on social media companies to play their part in transforming the transparency of digital political advertising and removing messages which do not meet the right standards. If this turns out to be insufficient, the UK's governments and parliaments should be ready to consider direct regulation.
Digital technology will continue to transform political campaigning and will continue to evolve. This report will not be the Commission's final view on these issues. We certainly do not claim to have all the answers. We also recognise that no single body is responsible for all the concerns raised by digital campaigning. Continuing co-operation with others such as the Information Commissioner is vital. For our part, we will continue to monitor the trends, and put forward our views when we think we can help promote public confidence in the democratic process.
Sir John Holmes
These recommendations are important because they will help to ensure that UK voters are confident that digital campaigns are following the UK’s electoral rules.
They will increase the transparency of digital campaigns. They will help prevent foreign funding of elections and referendum campaigns. And they will give us the power to impose higher fines on campaigners who break the rules. This will be a greater deterrent to those who may be tempted to break them.
- Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should change the law so that digital material must have an imprint saying who is behind the campaign and who created it.
- Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should amend the rules for reporting spending. They should make campaigners sub-divide their spending returns into different types of spending. These categories should give more information about the money spent on digital campaigns.
- Campaigners should be required to provide more detailed and meaningful invoices from their digital suppliers to improve transparency.
- Social media companies should work with us to improve their policies on campaign material and advertising for elections and referendums in the UK.
- UK election and referendum adverts on social media platforms should be labelled to make the source clear. Their online databases of political adverts should follow the UK’s rules for elections and referendums.
- Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should clarify that spending on election or referendum campaigns by foreign organisations or individuals is not allowed. They would need to consider how it could be enforced and the impact on free speech.
- We will make proposals to campaigners and each of the UK’s governments about how to improve the rules and deadlines for reporting spending. We want information to be available to voters and us more quickly after a campaign, or during.
- Each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should increase the maximum fine we can sanction campaigners for breaking the rules, and strengthen our powers to obtain information outside of an investigation.