Current election campaign rules a 'cheater’s charter’

By agency reporter
October 29, 2018

Democracy campaigners are demanding an overhaul of campaign rules, in a new submission to the government’s consultation on protecting democracy.

The Electoral Reform Society is urging the government to require political advertisements published online to include ‘imprints’ stating their real origin and funder, following revelations that an anonymous website was behind a £250,000 pro-Brexit advertising campaign urging voters to “bin Chequers”.

It comes as a new University of Warwick study shows that Facebook advertisements do influence large groups of voters, and played an important role in the 2016 Presidential election.

The Electoral Reform Society have now submitted their response to the government’s consultation on campaign rules – urging the government to require election adverts published online to include ‘imprints’ stating their real origin and funder.

In their submission, the ERS say it “strongly supports requiring imprints for all paid-for, digital materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners” and calls for greater safeguards to prevent harassment and abuse in politics.

The proposed change to legislation would bring rules for online adverts – including those published on Facebook and Twitter – in line with long-standing rules for printed election materials.

While Facebook and Twitter have improved transparency in recent months, the ERS say election transparency should not be "at the whim of multinational companies" and that Parliament should set the minimum standard instead.

The call for change comes as a key committee of MPs accuse the government of failing to take action on this area, saying it is "disappointing".

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Transparency in our democratic processes shouldn’t be at the whim of multinational companies. Parliament needs to set a standard to ensure we know who is funding and influencing our political debate.

“While Facebook and Twitter have opened up under pressure, that still leaves the rest of the internet as a wild west. The current outdated rules are a cheater’s charter that leave us vulnerable to foreign influence and unscrupulous individuals or organisations.

“Just as printed election materials require an ‘imprint’ saying who is behind it, online ads should too. And we must improve processes to ensure victims of harassment and abuse in politics know their complaints will be dealt with swiftly, independently and effectively.

“The current legislation was designed for an analogue age: we now need to bring our campaign rules into the 21st century to deal with the many threats our democracy faces.”

In the Society’s response to the government’s consultation on campaign rules, Dr Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society, said: “When it comes the rules which govern elections, the fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process.

“The current system of requiring imprints for printed election materials promotes transparency and gives voters confidence in who is communicating with them.

“Online, however, voters may be micro-targeted with political advertising without their knowledge of which campaign has produced the material and what alternative messages are being sent to others.

“While Facebook have taken steps towards greater transparency in recent weeks, the integrity of our elections cannot be left to the decisions of individual companies.

“A requirement for political adverts to be open to scrutiny must be enshrined in legislation urgently so that all future elections are protected.”

The Electoral Reform Society believes an imprint requirement for online materials should be complemented by a comprehensive review of electoral legislation, including reforms recommended in the Electoral Commission’s Digital Campaigning report released earlier this year.

* Read Politics in the Facebook Era: Evidence from the 2016 US Presidential Elections here

* Electoral Reform Society https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

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