The Electoral Commission

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

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2. Who runs digital campaigns?

Recommendations

  • 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.

Campaigners use digital platforms to campaign during an election or referendum. These campaigners range from registered political parties to individual campaigners. Political parties must register with us to stand candidates in elections. Non-party campaigners and referendum campaigners that want to spend over a certain amount must also register with us. Only people who live in the UK or are registered to vote here, or organisations based here, are able to register.

Who is behind online campaigns?

Printed campaign material must contain information about who is behind the campaign and who created the materials. Voters can see who is distributing this material by looking at the imprint on it. We have a role in ensuring that these rules on including an ‘imprint’ on campaign material are followed. But we don’t regulate the other content or arguments used in campaign material.

It may not be clear who is behind an online campaign because the law doesn’t require campaigners to include an imprint on digital material. It may not be clear that something on social media is from a campaigner as social media posts can appear to come from individuals expressing their personal opinions.

Campaigners can purchase ‘bots’ and pay people to spread their campaign messages, and this is misleading if voters cannot see that this has happened.

A bot is an automated software program that mimics human behaviour on social media by posting, liking and talking to real people. A ‘troll’ is a real person who spends time on websites and social media posting divisive or irrelevant messages and comments to annoy or anger other people.

Organisations or individuals can set up fake social media accounts. They pretend these accounts are held by real people and attempt to sway opinion by posting messages or liking and sharing the messages of others.

Sometimes campaigners in other countries pay trolls to spread their messages and attack their opponents.

The press has reported on instances of governing parties in other countries using bots, fake accounts and paid trolls to ‘amplify’ campaign messages when they are standing for re-election. This creates the appearance of grassroots support – a phenomenon known as 'astroturfing'. The aim is to make a campaign appear popular with the public. But the support isn’t genuine because it hasn’t come from real people. The party has manufactured it and paid money for it.

Several academic research projects have looked at the use of bots and fake accounts to amplify campaign messages on Twitter during the EU referendum and US election campaigns in 2016. Although they have identified that there were active networks of both bots and fake accounts during and after these campaigns, it’s not clear how or if they affected the outcome.

We do not think that there is anything wrong with campaigners using bots to post messages telling voters about their policies and political views. But it should be clear who is doing it. Similarly we do not think there is anything wrong with campaigners telling their staff to post campaign messages. But these forms of campaigning are a problem when they are used to deceive voters about a campaigner’s identity or their true level of support, or used to abuse people.

Imprints on digital material

We have been recommending since 2003 that online campaign material should include an imprint. Campaigners would then have to identify who they are so that it is clear who is campaigning. We currently advise campaigners to include an imprint, even though it is not required under law.

This could include posts made by bots and paid trolls. Although posting on social media is free, it costs money to employ people and acquire bots. These costs count towards a campaigner’s spending limit for an election or referendum. A campaigner who doesn’t include an imprint would run the risk of a fine.

Imprints on digital campaign messages would also help us enforce the spending rules. This is because we would have a better idea who may need to register and submit a spending return after an election or referendum.

It was a legal requirement at the Scottish independence referendum for digital material to have an imprint. Overall it worked fairly well. There were some questions about what kinds of digital material the law applied to, including personal opinions. We can learn from this experience when considering any new requirement.

The UK Government has said it will consult on whether to change the law so that digital material has to have an imprint. This consultation will be a good opportunity to hear from campaigners and others about how the new rules could work.

Truthfulness of digital campaign material and news

One of the main concerns about online information is whether it’s true. During election and referendum campaigns, this concern applies to both the content of digital campaign material and the news that appears in voters’ social media feeds. Fake news was a cause of considerable concern during and after the US presidential election.

Our research with the public showed that they were less trusting of online materials. They were concerned about both the content and source. They considered that the internet gave less credible sources a greater ability to mislead people and spread false information. They viewed fake news as a spectrum from entirely false stories to real news that was distorted to fit a political agenda.

We are not in a position to monitor the truthfulness of campaign claims, online or otherwise. However, changing the law so that digital material has to have an imprint will help voters to assess the credibility of campaign messages. Voters will know who the source is and be more able to decide how credible it is.

The roles of others

The law does not require claims in campaign material to be truthful or factually accurate. But it is a crime to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate. Campaign material must not incite others to commit crimes. The police investigate such allegations.

The UK Statistics Authority can complain to campaigners if it thinks they have misused official statistics in their campaign material. The Advertising Standards Authority oversees campaign adverts about some political subjects, but does not have a role in election or referendum campaigns.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life recently held an inquiry into intimidation in public life. It recommended that political parties should develop codes of conduct about intimidatory behaviour. We think that campaigners should also take more responsibility for the tone of their arguments and the claims they make in their campaign material.

The Information Commissioner is responsible for the rules about how organisations in the UK use personal data. They are looking at how campaigners, social media companies and others use personal data for political purposes.

We expect that the Information Commissioner will report later this year on whether campaigners need to change how they use voters’ personal data. We will work with the Commissioner to give campaigners guidance to help them make any changes.

3. Spending on digital campaign activity >

Political parties, campaigning & donations