The EU elections are approaching, the government needs to act now to protect them from abuse

12 April 2019 | Will Moy

This week the deadline for Brexit was extended meaning the UK will be taking part in the EU Parliamentary elections next month. At the moment, our election laws around political advertising and campaigning online are dangerously out of date. We are calling on the government to act now to update our election laws in order to protect these elections from abuse.

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The problem

Our current election laws are built around the idea of adverts as fixed things that appear in the same way to many people—but we're light years away from that now. Currently, it’s possible for a candidate to run a thousand different political campaigns to win the same seat, promising something different to each group it targets. Election campaigns are no longer a shared experience.

According to a Facebook paper leaked to Bloomberg last year, "Trump ran 5.9 million different versions of ads during the presidential campaign and rapidly tested them to spread those that generated the most Facebook engagement...". 

At the same time, there is currently no law that requires the publishers of online campaigns to declare who they are and who has funded their advertising material. A recent Guardian report claims that a series of Facebook advertising campaigns that appear to be from separate grassroots movements on Brexit are overseen by employees of one lobbying company. Research by Doteveryone – who are supporting us in this call for change - describes how the regulation of digital political campaigning is not fit for purpose.

Whilst internet companies have taken some steps to increase transparency without waiting for parliament to catch up, this isn’t nearly enough. Our election rules should be set through open, democratic, transparent processes in Parliament—not drafted in the terms and conditions of private companies.

Urgent action needed

There are two changes that we believe can be implemented quickly in order to protect the EU elections next month. Firstly, online campaign materials must state who is promoting them so that voters know who is targeting them online. The ‘imprint law’ currently exists for offline material but the law urgently needs to be updated to extend to online campaigning.

Secondly, advertising must be transparent and open to scrutiny for elections to remain a shared experience. We need a public database of online political ads, provided in real time, in machine readable format and with full information on content, targeting, reach and spend to guarantee transparency.

We are amongst others that are calling for change too. In February, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee published a report calling for an overhaul of election and political advertising rules to make them fit for the digital age, including urgent legislation to make sure all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public. So far there's been no commitment from the government that it will put those changes in place before the next election. The Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, internet companies and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) have all called for changes too.

The time to act is now: EU elections are being held next month and a general election could be just around the corner. Failure to act will undermine our democracy and leave us vulnerable to malicious actors both at home and abroad.

Read more about Full Fact’s recommendations for tackling misinformation in an open society.

Read more about Doteveryone’s recommendations for reforming the regulation of digital political campaigning.

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