The Electoral Commission

The independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK

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1. The rise of digital campaigning

Good campaigns that communicate with voters are central to well-run elections and referendums. When campaigners clearly explain their policies and political views, voters are better able to exercise their right to vote in a meaningful and informed way.

In the UK, the evidence shows campaigners are increasingly using new ways of communicating to reach voters. In particular, they often use advertising services bought from digital and social media companies like Facebook, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram. The chart below shows that the proportion of money campaigners have reported spending on digital advertising has continued to increase during this decade.

Reported spending by campaigners on digital advertising as a percentage of total advertising spend: 0.3% in 2011, 1.7% in 2014, 23.9% in 2015, 32.3% in 2016 and 42.6% in 2017.

This chart shows spending that campaigners reported in their statutory spending returns for UK Parliament elections in 2015 and 2017; Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales elections in 2011 and 2016; Northern Ireland Assembly elections in 2011, 2016 and 2017; and the referendums on EU membership in 2016, Scottish Independence in 2014 and changing the UK’s voting system in 2011.

But this chart does not show the full picture of digital advertising at elections and referendums. It only contains spending data for the most well-known digital platforms, which registered campaigners have reported to us.

Advertising is not the only way campaigners communicate with voters on social and digital media. Campaigners can also ‘like’, ‘share’ and ‘post’ messages for free and potentially reach wide audiences.

Digital campaign tools can make it easier and cheaper for legitimate campaigners to communicate with voters. It is a sign of a healthy democracy when campaigners tell voters about their policies and political views. However, we recognise that new techniques for reaching voters could reduce confidence in the integrity of elections and referendums.

People may think the law doesn’t cover new techniques. These techniques can also be misused. For example, it could be easier for foreign individuals or regimes to try to influence voters online without any physical presence in the country. UK-based campaigners may also try to get round limits on spending through hidden digital activity.

The rise of digital campaigning raises important issues for a number of regulators and organisations, as well as us. The Information Commissioner is investigating the use of personal data and analytics by political campaigns, parties, social media companies and other commercial organisations. Within the UK Parliament, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is continuing its inquiry into the impact of 'fake news' on modern democracy.

Governments and legislators have expressed concerns about the wider misuse of digital communications in many countries. In the UK, the Prime Minister, Head of the Security Service and the Attorney General have all highlighted the risks of foreign governments mounting cyber espionage and disruption campaigns in the UK. This is not limited to interference in elections and is part of wider attempts to cause disruption.

Voters, campaigners and law enforcement agencies have raised concerns about disruption, interference and misuse of digital campaigns at recent elections and referendums in the United States, France, Germany and Ireland. Legislators in the United States, France and the UK have set out proposals for statutory regulation of digital campaigns, and social media companies have begun to publish their own proposals for reform.

These concerns have fed into a wider debate about reform of the rules for social media and digital communications, both here in the UK and in other countries around the world. Following its Internet Safety green paper, the UK Government has set out its Digital Charter, a programme of work to agree and put into practice norms and rules for the online world. It aims to ensure that the rights people have offline are protected online. This includes “limiting the spread and impact of disinformation intended to mislead for political, personal and/or financial gain”.

Our role in regulating digital campaigns

We have been looking at the risks and the challenges that digital campaigns bring to the UK's election and referendum rules. As the regulator, our main role in this area is to monitor and enforce the rules about where the money behind campaigns comes from and how campaigners spend money. This includes money spent on digital campaigns intended to influence UK voters.

We talked to political parties after the 2017 UK general election and looked at spending returns from campaigners at other recent elections and referendums. We have talked to the main social media companies that work in the UK. We have carried out research with the public to find out what they think about digital campaigns.

“There was acknowledgement from some that although people may approach online messages with scepticism, there was a risk that unverified information could still have an influence to some degree. There was an acceptance that the nature of digital campaigns made it difficult to discern the source of all the materials that they receive.”
GfK, Political finance regulation and digital campaigning: a public perspective

The UK Parliament has given us a role to report on elections and referendums, to keep electoral law under review and to recommend changes where we think they’re needed. The Scottish Parliament and Government are responsible for Scotland-only elections. The Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales are responsible for Wales-only elections. We work with all relevant governments on the changes to electoral law they are responsible for. This is why some of our recommendations are for each of the UK’s governments and legislatures, not just the UK Government and Parliament.

2. Who runs digital campaigns? >

Political parties, campaigning and donations