The Electoral Reform Society has published a report looking at the amount of dark campaigning that took place during the UK’s general election of 2019. They have also come up with a number of proposals for reform.
In the report, Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power have looked at five aspects of online campaigning:
- Campaigning by the parties themselves
- Campaigning by third party groups (outriders)
- Online Targeting
- Data Use
Some of these might seem pretty familiar by now. Parties have every right to use Facebook and other platforms and these offer exceptional ability to micro-target. The problem is that there is a fine line between legitimate campaigning and breaking the rules. And as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, there are groups who are prepared to go well beyond the law in order to help their side win.
Perhaps the least known aspect covered by this report is the section on ‘outriders’. These are groups that set up just before an election, raise and spend money during it, and then disappear. It often takes many months to show that perhaps these groups were not as independent as they might seem.
The report looks at one group called ‘3rd Party Limited’. This group appears to have taken out adverts which had the effect of boosting the chances of Dominic Raab being re-elected in the Esher and Walton constituency. The ERS report suggests that it placed adverts which first aimed to split the opposition vote between Labour and Greens and then promoted votes for Raab himself, spending £8,837 on Facebook adverts between 21st November and 13th December 2019. To put it into context, that is just over half the amount that Mr Raab was allowed to spend in total on his election campaign.
The difference between non-party groups, which mostly operate on a national basis, and outriders which aim to get around spending limits on local campaigns, might be clear in theory, but in legal terms is anything but. To be clear, there is no suggestion that there was co-ordination between Mr Raab and ‘3rd Party limited’ or any wrongdoing. However, the law as it stands does allow these outriders to make a mockery of local spending limits.
The ERS report makes ten recommendations for the future which, in my opinion, are strong and the very least that can be done to update the UK’s election law. They go far beyond the limited (but welcome) proposal by the government to add imprint requirements to online adverts.
- Require campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed, meaningful and accessible invoices of what they have spent, boosting scrutiny and transparency over online vs offline spend.
- Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission to investigate malpractice and create a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing by increasing the maximum fine it can levy.
- Implement shorter reporting deadlines so that financial information from campaigns on their donations and spending is available to voters and the Commission more quickly after a campaign, or indeed, in ‘real time’. Currently, voters have to wait far too long to see the state of the campaign.
- Regulate all donations by reducing ‘permissibility check’ requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations, and £500 to £20 for cash donations. The current rules are riddled with loopholes and haven’t kept up with the digital age, raising the risks of foreign or unscrupulous interference.
- Create a publicly accessible, clear and consistent archive of paid-for political advertising. This archive should include details of each advert’s source (name and address), who sponsored (paid) for it, and (for some) the country of origin.
- New controls created by social media companies to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are actually based in the UK or registered to vote here.
- New legislation clarifying that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Campaigners should not be able to accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation or loan.
- Legislate for a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns, to clarify the rules and ensure voters know their rights.
- A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation.
- 10.Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework.