Many of the UK’s statutes and regulations relating to the electoral system date back to the 19th century. On account of this, electoral reform groups have argued that legislation relating to electoral campaigning is woefully inadequate and out of date.
As political campaigning moves largely online, digitalisation brings with it a whole new set of problems. It is now far more difficult to identify who is responsible for online political advertisements, what their motives are and how much they are spending.
Many have subsequently said that holding onto laws that are “no longer fit for purpose,” significantly reduces the credibility of elections, and undermines democracy in the UK.
The Electoral Commission and a myriad of pressure groups are consequently rallying for reform. They say that without this, trust in the system will not be restored.
In 2015, the Conservative Party took advantage of Facebook’s potential for the first time. It spent 10 times the amount that Labour did on Facebook advertisement. Later, in the 2016 Brexit campaign, the party blew the majority of its budget on Facebook targeted ads. This saw the party serve around 1 billion targeted advertisements over the official 10 week campaign.
The mobilisation of digital advertising has only increased in the last few years. In 2017, a total of 42.8% of campaign advertising was spent on online platforms. During the 2019 electoral campaign, collectively the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats placed around 25,000 Facebook ads.
Expanding and refining its efforts, in 2019, the Conservatives employed political campaigners Sean Topham and Ben Guerin to improve its online reach. The pair had previously worked for both Glencore, and CTF Partners, and didn’t have the cleanest record having been linked to a large-scale disinformation network.
And, there are further examples of digital political campaigns that expose a similar disdain for transparency. During the 2019 election, the Conservatives duped Twitter users when it rebranded one of its official party accounts. CCHQ Press was altered to appear as a fact-checker for the ITV leaders’ debate.
Further blurring the lines between fact and fiction, the Party also posted a doctored video of Sir Keir Starmer to its Twitter account. The video was edited to present him as tongue-tied when faced with questions by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. The then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak responded by saying Conservative HQ had gone “a bit too far”.
Over the course of the campaign, the Conservatives also focused it’s search strategy by targeting Labour-related keywords. This involved placing ads on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) which appeared to link out to Labour Party sites. However, these were in fact Conservative Party websites laden with misinformation about the Labour Party’s manifesto.
An investigation conducted by First Draft also found that during the campaign the Liberal Democrats had been using “inaccurate graphs,” and misleading polls, and posted them to its Twitter page. Additionally, according to Full Fact, 7 Labour Party ads were found to link out to web pages containing inaccurate information and figures.
There are currently a range of regulators that exist in the UK. However, they all have different priorities and none of them relate to digital regulation. The Electoral Commission focuses on the regulation of election campaign finance. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) covers personal data and data protection. Meanwhile, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) regulates advertisements, however this does not extend to political advertisements.
As a result, pressure groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, have argued that there is “a near-total lack of regulation of online political advertising”. This is concerning for a number of reasons.
While advertising spending limits are an integral part of electoral regulation, auditing how much is spent on digital advertising is increasingly difficult. The Electoral Commission, for example, found that non-party campaign groups have risen from 43 in 2017, to 67 in 2019. According to the Financial Times, back in December 2019, these shadow groups had a combined spending of £503,000.
However, these so-called “non-party campaign groups” do have political affiliations. As a group registered with the Electoral Commission, it was found that Capitalist Worker is in fact linked to Brian Monteith who was a Brexit Party MEP. The advocacy group Who Targets Me, also found that the page’s ads were viewed specifically by those in Labour Constituencies, which suggests the group were using micro-targeting techniques.
Further to this, Facebook page Parent’s Choice, which spent over £10,000 during the election, was paid for by Richard Patrick Tracey, former Conservative MP and Minister for Sport under Margaret Thatcher.
Lack of regulation also means it’s difficult to trace who is behind an online political advertisement. Wired Magazine found that 3rd Party Limited, a group which masqueraded as a Pro-Green and advertised as such, was in fact founded by Thomas Borwick, former Chief Technology Officer for Vote Leave through the 2016 referendum campaign.
As a result, under the surface these political advertisements had, allegedly, a much more nefarious motivation than simply advocating the Green Party. Instead, the BBC reported, that it has been suggested the group were trying to lead non-Conservative voters away from choosing “more electable” Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates.
Speaking about the dangers of these groups, Damian Collins Conservative MP chairing parliament’s Digital Committee said: “We have to expect that the current system will remain broken. Shadowy campaign groups that support different interests, but are not officially connected to any one political party, will make themselves heard online”.
It is clear that serious electoral legislation reform is required in order to prevent parties from spreading misinformation, and covertly expanding their spending budget for campaigning. The UK public agrees. Research conducted by YouGov, and commissioned by The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, asked voter’s their opinion, based on how they voted in the 2016 Referendum. When asked if they believe that there should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts should be accurate, 87% of Leave voters said yes, and 90% of Remain voters agreed.
However, the Electoral Commission has been acutely aware of the need for legislative change for years. It first recommended changes way back in 2003. These series of changes include introducing legislation which enforces imprints on digital material disclosing who is behind the campaign, and who it’s creator is. It also suggests that more transparency around digital spending should be legislated. This would involve campaigners subdividing their spending returns to disclose how much is spent on their digital campaigns. It also recommends that campaigners should be forced to provide “more detailed” and “meaningful invoices” from their digital suppliers.
Further to this, the Electoral Commission advises that foreign organisations or bodies should not be allowed to contribute financially to election or referendum campaigns. It proposes that social media companies should ensure that all political advertisements are clearly labelled with their source and make sure that their political advert databases are in line with the UK’s rules on elections and referendums.
The Law Commission agrees with these proposals. It has also suggested that “digital imprints” for online campaign material and for social media advertisements should be a requirement by law. In addition to this, The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has drawn up a draft code of practice for the use of personal data in political campaigning.
Meanwhile, although ad libraries which collate data on who has paid for online advertisements exist, they are not yet perfect. Both Google and Facebook have fallen short when it comes to accurately reporting on campaign spending.
As a result, it is obvious that substantial changes are required to regulate digital political campaigns. Much more transparency is needed when it comes to how voters are targeted. Stricter restrictions should also be placed on the way that voter’s data is used against them. Voters should be able to make informed decisions, without being manipulated by the “dark art” of political advertising. Ultimately, new legislation should wipe out misinformation and lies fed to the public by political parties. Without this, political propaganda will continue to seriously contort the UK’s democracy.