The Electoral Commission

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

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3. Spending on digital campaign activity


  • Campaigners should be required to provide more detailed and meaningful invoices from their digital suppliers to improve transparency.
  • Each of the UK's governments and legislatures should amend the rules for reporting spending. They should divide their spending returns into different types of spending. These categories should give more information about the money spent on digital campaigns.
  • 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 change the law so that campaign-related staff costs are included in the spending limits on political party election and referendum campaign spending.
  • 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 quick after a campaign, or during it.
  • We and the UK's governments and legislatures should look again at when the spending and funding controls should start to apply before a referendum.

UK electoral law sets limits on the amount of money that campaigners can spend on campaign activity during the regulated period before elections and referendums. The regulated period is the period in which the spending rules apply. Money spent on digital campaigning carried out during that period counts towards campaigners’ spending limits. For example, the regulated period lasts 12 months before a UK Parliament election and 4 months before a Scottish Parliament election. The regulated period before the EU referendum was 10 weeks.

Registered political parties, non-party campaigners and referendum campaigners must send details of their spending to us after the election or referendum. Candidates have to submit a spending return to the local election Returning Officer. We publish details about the spending on our website.

Transparency of digital political advertising

Campaigners can use digital and social media tools to direct their messages to the people they most want to reach. Campaigners use the personal data they and social media platforms have to target voters. They target voters based on demographic factors like age and gender, on their interests and on their physical location. This is often called ‘micro-targeting’ because campaigners are able to send messages tailored to specific groups of voters based on this information. They can also adjust the messages they send very rapidly, to take account of what seems to work best with particular groups or individuals.

Only the voter, the campaigner and the platform know who has been targeted with which messages. Only the company and campaigner know why a voter was targeted and how much was spent on a particular campaign. This is why the term ‘dark ads’ has been used to describe micro-targeting, although it is perfectly legal.

People in our recent research said that targeted messages from campaigners could be helpful if it meant they got information that was more relevant and interesting to them. But they were worried about how their personal data had been gathered and used. They also said that they would be worried about targeted messages that spread false or misleading information.

Other concerns have been raised about the transparency of spending on and targeting of digital political advertising as well. The UK’s election rules set spending limits to stop campaigners being able to spend so much more money than their opponents that they would gain an unfair advantage. As part of this, campaigners must report how much they have spent to produce and send targeted messages to voters using digital channels. This includes messages targeted at specific groups of people in a particular constituency.

Political parties should report the costs of many kinds of messages at elections. But if messages promote a particular candidate, the rules may require the candidate to report the cost of those messages instead. These rules do not work properly if candidates and political parties do not report the money they spend on targeted messages against the right limit.

We want to check that campaigners have properly reported the money they spend against the right limit. It would be help us if the law said campaigners have to include an imprint on all their digital campaign material.

More detailed invoices

It would help us if campaigners’ invoices showed the detail of which groups of people they targeted with digital adverts. Although spending over £200 needs to be supported by an invoice, the law is not clear on the level of detail that should be included in the invoice.

Some invoices contain very little detail, making it difficult or impossible to know what the money was spent on and where. For example, campaigners have given us invoices from Facebook which say only “campaign 1, campaign 2”. However, other campaigners have given us more meaningful detail. Their invoices show the text of the campaign messages sent to voters or information about the area of the country they were targeted at.

Campaigners should be required to provide invoices from their suppliers which contain more meaningful information about the details of their campaigns. This should include the messages used in those campaigns, which parts of the country they were targeted at, and how much was spent on each campaign.

Revising the spending categories

Spending on campaign activity is declared to us under broad categories such as ‘advertising’. There is no specific legal category for digital campaigning. We can see from our records that different campaigners have declared it under different spending categories, but mostly as advertising.

We recommended after the 2015 UK Parliament general election that the spending categories should be revised to provide more useful information about what campaigners have spent money on. This has not been acted on so far, but would be a valuable additional tool to track and check the spending on digital campaigning.

We think it could be too simplistic to add a new ‘digital’ category alongside the existing ones. The existing categories focus on types of communication with voters, including ‘unsolicited material to electors’ or ‘advertising’ or ‘events’. If a category was introduced for ‘digital spending’, it might displace all of that spending into one large category based on how it was done. The information would not be easy to use and it would not increase transparency.

Instead, it would be better to create sub-categories to record what medium or format was used for the activity. The solution needs to be practical for campaigners to report their spending. It also needs to provide meaningful information for everyone who uses it.

Databases of political adverts

Social media companies have started to set out how they could make political adverts more transparent. Facebook, Google and Twitter have said that they will make sure that campaigners who pay to place political adverts with them will have to include labels showing who has paid for them.

They also say that they plan to publish their own online databases of the political adverts that they have been paid to run. These will include information such as the targeting, actual reach and amount spent on those adverts.

These companies are aiming to publish their databases in time for the November 2018 mid-term elections in the United States. Some of them also published data ahead of the May 2018 referendum in Ireland. Facebook has said it aims to publish similar data ahead of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland in May 2019.

Who targets me? project is a citizen-led project which Sam Jeffers and Louis Knight-Webb set up shortly before the 2017 UK Parliament general election. They created software that voters could install on their web browsers. It tracked the political adverts they saw on Facebook. The project recommended that social media companies publish all the adverts they run on a central website.

Some organisations like the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising also support creating a central public register of online political adverts, rather than leaving it to the social media companies themselves.

We welcome the intention of each of these proposals. Databases like these would bring greater transparency for voters. They would also make it easier for us to enforce the spending rules. We would be able to see what adverts a campaigner has taken out and how much they paid. For example, if we could see that certain campaigners are targeting adverts to the same voters, it could indicate that they are working together.

We expect the social media companies to make sure that their new databases of political adverts reflect the UK’s election and referendum rules, and provide meaningful information for us and for voters. We want all the major social media companies that run election adverts in the UK to make sure they create such databases. We expect them to discuss with us whether they can publish their data in the same format.

Paid-for adverts and organic reach

Digital campaigning costs campaigners money if they pay companies like Facebook to target their messages at voters. However, campaigners can also spread their messages for free by encouraging their supporters to share them with their friends and family. This is called ‘organic’ reach. Media reports claim that the Labour Party and Momentum did this effectively during the 2017 general election campaign.

The current rules for election and referendum campaigns focus on the money campaigners spend. They don’t cover the organic reach campaigners can harness. For example, the rules would cover the costs of targeting an advert or message at a campaigner’s online supporters. But there would be no additional costs if the supporters share the message further with their online contacts. This can be particularly effective if messages have humorous or otherwise striking content.

Some people might think that it is unfair if some campaigners have greater organic reach than others. But it could also give campaigners an incentive to attract more supporters to broaden their organic reach.

In this respect digital campaigning is not different from more traditional forms of campaigning, where some campaigners are more effective than others. We consider that getting more voters to participate in election and referendum campaigns is good for those campaigns and for democracy itself.

The current rules were developed in 2000. At that time, it was more difficult to spread messages widely and cheaply through organic reach. Campaigners now depend less on spending money for paid adverts to reach some voters directly. But money is still needed to make and manage databases of supporters and target the messages which can build organic reach.

It will be important to keep considering whether it is enough to regulate the money that campaigners spend at elections and referendums. There is a question about whether the UK should regulate campaigning at elections and referendums in different ways.

Unregulated spending on staffing

The money that political parties and referendum campaigners spend on staff they directly employ to work on their election and referendum campaigns doesn’t count towards their spending limits. But it does count towards non-party campaigners’ and candidates’ spending limits.

We held meetings with several political parties and a registered non-party campaigner after the 2017 UK Parliament general election to discuss how they used digital campaigning and social media as part of their campaigns. All of them told us that they had their own permanent staff working on their digital campaigns, and all took on additional staff or consultants for the election. All of the parties told us that digital was an increasingly important aspect of their campaigns.

We have recommended since 2013 that the costs of directly employed staff working on election and referendum campaigns should count towards political parties’ and referendum campaigners’ spending limits. This would close an obvious gap and inconsistency in the rules that allows political parties and referendum campaigners to spend potentially large sums of money on campaigning without having to declare them. It would also make it more transparent how much campaigners spend on digital campaigning.

Improving understanding about regulated spending

The UK’s election rules cover the most important costs of campaigning, but some journalists and commentators seem unsure about which costs are covered.

The rules do cover the costs of placing adverts on digital platforms or websites. They include the costs of distributing and targeting digital campaign materials or developing and using databases for digital campaigning. This applies even if the original purchase of hardware or software materials falls outside the regulated period for reporting spending.

Spending limits and rules to report spending apply to campaign spending on advertising. The same rules apply whether campaigners use long-standing techniques, such as printed mailshots or billboards, or newer ones, such as emails and online adverts.

Statutory codes about election spending

We are currently drafting statutory codes of practice for political parties and candidates. The codes are intended to add clarity and give examples about how the law applies to different kinds of spending. The draft codes outline how campaigners should report digital campaigning and use of data.

We are preparing these codes for the UK Parliament to approve, so that there will be statutory guidance for campaigners about how the law on election spending. The Scottish and Welsh Governments are also interested in introducing codes for elections in Scotland and Wales. We aim to have them approved in time for the next major elections in 2021 and 2022.

We are planning to consult on the statutory codes on election spending in the latter part of 2018. We encourage a wide range of responses to improve the draft Codes before they are presented to legislators.

When and how we receive spending information

Campaigners that spend under £250,000 have three months after an election or referendum to submit their spending returns to us. Campaigners that spend £250,000 or more have six months.

This is a long time after the campaigns have finished. During this time, voters have no information about how much money campaigners spent, or what they spent it on, to influence the result.

Members of the public who took part in our research thought that submitting spending returns after a campaign was too late. Some thought that campaigners should have to report their spending during a campaign.

Currently, campaigners can choose to submit their returns to us electronically or on paper. If we receive paper records, we have to use resources on data entry and that delays publication. It takes more time to check information in the paper spending returns and cross-check it with other information we hold before we can publish it.

Voters should be able to see how campaigners have spent their money as soon as possible after an election or referendum while it is still a live issue. Earlier deadlines for campaigners to submit their spending returns would make it easier for voters to understand this. If campaigners had to submit electronic records to us, it would also mean that we could identify any possible problems more quickly after the election or referendum.

When the spending and funding rules apply to campaigners

UK electoral law sets limits on the amount of money that campaigners can spend on campaign activity during the regulated period before elections and referendums.

The period of time when spending rules apply has been different for several referendums. For the Scottish independence referendum, the spending controls applied for 16 weeks. For the EU referendum it was 10 weeks.

There were also different lengths of time between the legislation for the referendum being passed and the spending rules coming into effect. Campaigners may use this gap to spend large sums of money that don’t count towards their spending limits. There are similar issues about when the funding rules start to apply and whether campaigners can use this gap to raise money that is not covered by the rules.

4. Who pays for digital campaigns? >

Political parties, campaigning and donations