Dame Cheryl Gillan is a former Secretary of State for Wales, and is MP for Chesham and Amersham.
The year 2000 – when our election rules were largely written – was a time before social media as we know it. Twitter and Facebook did not exist. It was a time of floppy discs and dial-up internet. Smart phones were practically unheard of. In short, the ability to transmit disinformation rapidly and channel millions of pounds into campaigns without scrutiny was far more difficult. So much has changed – yet our campaign rules have remained in the analogue age.
Our democracy is at a critical juncture. We live in a time when our democratic processes face considerable threats from a range of sources – from ‘dark ads’ and fake news, to foreign interference and the misuse of personal data on a monumental scale.
Online political campaigning has effectively become an unbridled Wild West, exposing the many loopholes that can allow people to circumvent our rules perfectly legally in the digital realm. The effects of this online Wild West go beyond these attempts at undermining our rules and regulations.
The quality of political discourse itself is under attack, as the Electoral Reform Society showed with their report It’s Good to Talk: debate has become increasingly polarised and tribal, facilitated by online filter bubbles and echo chambers. This, combined with poor quality information, has created a toxic climate which is stifling genuine political debate.
If we do not update the rules governing our elections and referendums, the credibility of our elections faces a ‘perfect storm’ of threats, as Sir John Holmes, the Chair of the Electoral Commission, has warned.
The need to look at this issue in the round is vital, given the huge overlap between the issues and actors involved. Yet to date there has been little to thread these responses and research together. To mark Facebook’s 15th anniversary, a new report brings together an unprecedented range of voices – from regulators to campaigners and academics – to address these challenges and offer solutions on what digital-age campaign regulation would look like.
When faith in the integrity of elections is undermined, democracy suffers. What can be done to reverse the decline?
There are six proposals in the report – many of which can be done quickly and relatively easily.
- In the short term, we must extend the imprint requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf – to online political advertising. It is illogical that printed materials must say who printed/promoted them but not similar materials online.
- We can improve how campaigners report funding and spending, including separating reporting for social media spend, alongside digital reporting of spend/donations. In the twenty-first century, it does not make sense to have thousands of unwieldly, scanned papers on the Electoral Commission site.
- There should be a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, to increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
- At present the maximum £20,000 fines for electoral law-breaking could be seen as the ‘cost of doing business’. We should give the regulators greater enforcement powers, so fines or sanctions can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing.
- All parties must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for online campaigning without delay.
- Finally, it is time for a comprehensive review of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age.
Political parties spent around £1.3 million on Facebook during the 2015 general election. This more than doubled two years later, with parties spending around £3.2 million on Facebook in the 2017 campaign. This issue is not going away.
The technology is developing faster than the rules: Josh Smith of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos shows that artificial intelligence and ‘deep learning’ data techniques are likely to be adopted in the future. As he argues, technologies should be used to improve our political process – not to manipulate them – and they should be clearly understood by users and targets.
The planned launch of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency is a welcome step that seeks to investigate how our democratic processes can best be protected. Take a key gap in the law: at present, parties can put out thousands of ‘micro-targeted’ online ads, saying very different – potentially contradictory – things to different groups of people. Voters should be able to see if campaigners are putting out contradictory messages to different groups of voters.
Tech platforms have recently taken some steps in the right direction, with Facebook launching a new ad archive. But it would be unwise to leave the regulation of online campaigning to private tech companies alone. That is no way to defend the integrity of our democracy.
The calls for a comprehensive review of our campaign laws have never been so widespread.
Regardless of when the next election or referendum takes place, now is the time to bring our rules into the 21st century – before this spirals out of our control.
This is an edited version of Dame Cheryl’s foreword to the Electoral Reform Society’s new report: “Reining in the Political ‘Wild West’: Campaign Rules for the 21st Century”.