Electoral Reform Society reveals the scale of secretive online campaigning in the UK

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
  • Misinformation

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.  
  4. 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.  
  5. 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.  
  6. 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.  
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation. 
  10. 10.Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework. 

Reading List – 4th November 2019

Some not very upbeat articles for the first Monday in November

First up, the FT has interviewed the leaders of Noirth Macedonia and Albania in the wake of the EU’s decision not to open accession talks to the countries. France blocked talks with North Macedonia and they, together with Denmark and the Netherlands said no to progress with Albania. Both leaders talk about the EU failing to live up to its side of the bargain having made consistent reforms since 2003. Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia warns that his country may slide backwards as a result.

 

The Guardian reports the results of a poll conducted by Open Societies Foundations across central and Eastern Europe where people say they are not confident about the state of democracy, the conduct of elections or the institutions such as the government and media. However there does seem to be a willingness among so-called ‘Generation Z’ respondents to seek to make their life better.

 

CNN reports that Facebook will apply its policy of not fact-checking adverts paid for by political parties or candidates to the UK general election. There are widespread warnings that this could lead to massive disinformation campaigns likely to mislead voters. The company has confirmed, however, that it will allow its third party fact-checkers to establish the veracity of non-party groups such as Leave.EU.

The Electoral Reform Society has also reiterated its campaign for action to prevent ‘dark ads’ from affecting the election.

 

 

Reining the Political ‘Wild West’ – Campaign Rules for the 21st century

The Electoral Reform Society (for whom I worked between 1998 and 2006) have co-ordinated a significant study published today which looks at electoral finance in the UK and in particular what they refer to as the wild west of campaigning – online.

The publication is a series of essays looking at different aspects of the field and includes contributions from the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission.

ERS also has a list of recommendations for changes in the law. They are: 

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending are two of the most readily achievable solutions. The government seems to recognise this and its consultation on imprints was a welcome and important  rst step in this regard.
  2. The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
  3. Those charged with enforcing the rules should have suffcient enforcement powers and resources. That must involve strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.
  4. Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  5. More broadly, the ERS is calling for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process. Alongside efforts to improve the quality of public debate itself, this could transform the murky world of online campaigning into a force for good.

ERS is right to point out that this is an area in which the UK has woeful regulation. UK electoral laws were mostly written in the year 2000 – before widespread use of the internet and before social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were even invented.

Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Aberavon and one of the contributors, has set out some of the practical changes he believes are necessary:

  1. We should look at which powers sit best with the Electoral Commission – which works best as a regulator and policy body – and which should sit with the police. There should also be unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than a maximum of £20,000, which is an insufficient deterrent.
  2. All political campaigns should be made to report spending online. We have a precedent for this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which tracks MPs’ spending. This would make it easier for campaigns to track their spending and bring more transparency into elections.
  3. Financial transfers from designated campaign groups during referendums must be banned. Current rules allow the designated campaign to give up to £700,000 to groups as long as they do not coordinate their work, but it is surely unreasonable to think gifts of this size are entirely without expectation, particularly as they create the potential to evade spending limits.
  4. We should regulate paid political digital advertising in the election period with a digital bill of rights for democracy.

Mr Kinnock also announces that he has set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Overall this is a significant contribution to the debate. Where this paper is weakest is in setting out a coherent statement of principles for regulation. We cannot just combat the problems that exist at the moment. Given how rarely electoral laws are updated, the action that is taken needs to ensure that the law is future-proofed for further developments in digital campaigning and engagement. ERS identify this in their fifth recommendation, but don’t go on to suggest how this can be done.

You can read the whole ERS paper here.