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Urgent improvements needed to ensure transparency for voters in digital age, says Electoral Commission

Published: 26 Jun 2018

Urgent action must be taken by the UK’s governments and parliaments, and by social media companies, to improve transparency around the targeting of voters online, a new report by the Electoral Commission finds.

Key recommendations made in “Digital campaigning: increasing transparency for voters” include:

  • The UK’s governments should urgently change the law so that online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners have an imprint stating who has created them.
  • The UK’s governments should revise spending return categories so that campaigners are required to provide detailed information about how money has been spent on digital campaigns.
  • Social media companies should label each UK election and referendum advert on their platforms to make the source clear, and deliver their proposals for online databases of political adverts.
  • More investigatory powers for the Electoral Commission to obtain information, and the ability to impose tougher sanctions.

The report stems from the increasing use of online and targeted digital communications with voters, as well as concerns about recent allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference. The Commission’s responsibilities include making recommendations about how electoral law might be modernised to reflect changes in campaigning techniques. A range of enquiries by the Commission have resulted in the package of recommendations announced today.

Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said:  

“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. 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.”

Social media companies

The Commission has welcomed social media companies’ commitments to political campaigning transparency and called on them to deliver their proposals for online databases of political adverts in time for UK elections in 2019 and 2020.

In a further step to stop campaign funding from outside the UK, the Commission also called on social media companies to put in place new controls to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are legally permitted to do so.

Sir John Holmes added:

“We recognise that no single body can deal with all of the issues raised by digital campaigning. Social media companies must play their part in transforming the transparency of digital political advertising. This includes ensuring that those that seek to target voters online are actually permitted by law to do so. If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.”

Increased transparency and powers

The Electoral Commission is calling for further powers that will enable it to enforce electoral law in the digital era. It asks for a significant increase to the maximum fine (currently £20,000) it can impose on those who break the rules, and for stronger powers to obtain information in real time, including outside a specific investigation.

The report points to areas for further consideration by the Commission and others. It calls for a new look at how to give voters information about campaign spending more quickly after a campaign, or during it. Currently campaigners have between three and six months to submit their spending returns, depending on how much they spend.

The Electoral Commission also recommends new checks to ensure that foreign money is not being used to influence UK elections and referendums, for example requiring companies to show that they have made enough money in the UK to fund donations they make.

In addition to the report, the Commission also published new research today that examines voters’ attitudes towards digital campaigning. This research highlights the level of concern and confusion amongst voters and the will for action to be taken.

Ends  

For more information contact the Electoral Commission press office on 020 7271 0704, out of office hours 07789 920 414 or press@electoralcommission.org.uk

Download “Digital campaigning: increasing transparency for voters” report

Access the “Political Regulation and Digital Campaigning: A Public Perspective” report.

Notes to editors

  1. The Electoral Commission is the independent body which oversees elections and regulates political finance in the UK. It works to promote public confidence in the democratic process and ensure its integrity by:
    • enabling the delivery of free and fair elections and referendums, focusing on the needs of electors and addressing the changing environment to ensure every vote remains secure and accessible
    • regulating political finance – taking proactive steps to increase transparency, ensure compliance and pursue breaches
    • using our expertise to make and advocate for changes to our democracy, aiming to improve fairness, transparency and efficiency

    The Commission was set up in 2000 and reports to the UK and Scottish Parliaments.

  2. “Political Regulation and Digital Campaigning: A Public Perspective” is a report of qualitative research findings by GfK UK for The Electoral Commission.

Journalist