The Electoral Commission

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

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Political finance regulation and digital campaigning: a public perspective

A report by GfK UK for the Electoral Commission.

Political Finance Regulation and Digital Campaigning: A Public Perspective (PDF)

Background

The Electoral Commission contracted research agency GfK to carry out research with the public. We wanted to find out:

  • what the public understand about how election and referendum campaigns are currently regulated
  • what they thought were the principles and priorities for regulating campaigns
  • how they reacted to digital campaign materials and concerns they had about digital campaigning
  • whether they had any suggestions for regulation to address those concerns.

GfK held a series of focus groups and one-to-one interviews with members of the public to discuss these topics. They took place in various cities across the UK. Participants in the research were chosen to provide a mix of ethnic, age and social groups. They were also chosen so that they had differing political views and levels of political engagement.

Digital campaigns

Participants said that they were more likely to pay attention to digital campaign messages because there were more of them and they were interactive and more engaging. But they worried about the source of them and queried how credible they were. They thought that the internet gave less credible sources a greater ability to mislead people and spread false information. They were concerned about who was funding digital campaigns.

Regulation

Participants expected that election and referendum campaigns would be regulated. They expected there to be spending limits but were surprised at how high they are. They agreed that foreign funding and influence should not be part of campaigns in the UK. They thought our maximum fine of £20,000 was too lenient. They wondered how accessible to the public the spending and funding data on our website is. They also wondered how useful it is for this information to be published after an election. They were surprised that the rules did not cover the content of campaign messages.

Improvements and next steps

Participants thought that there should be tougher sanctions for breaking the rules, greater transparency, neutral sources for the public to verify campaign information and more public education about the issues around digital campaigning.

The results of this research have fed into what we have written in our report on digital campaigning.

  • We have repeated our recommendation that digital material should have to include an imprint. This would help voters know who is behind a campaign and help them decide how credible the material is.
  • We have said that each of the UK’s governments and legislatures should clarify that foreign organisations or individuals spending on election or referendum campaigns is not allowed.
  • We have repeated our recommendation that our maximum fine should be higher than the current £20,000 per offence.
  • We have said that campaigners should request more detailed and meaningful invoices from their digital suppliers to provide more transparency.
  • We have said that we will make proposals to campaigners and each of the UK’s governments about changing the deadlines for reporting spending. This would mean that information is available to voters and us more quickly after a campaign, or during it.

The research has also indicated what the public think about several other issues which we did not address in our own report. We will use these in our future work where they are relevant.

Research