The government must stick to its pledge to increase online political campaign transparency

19 December 2019 | Will Moy

Full Fact is concerned that today’s Queen’s Speech has a less specific commitment to much needed reforms to electoral law than the version published just nine weeks ago, and urges the government to prioritise these changes.

The Queen’s Speech sets out the government’s agenda for the next session of parliament, including new legislation and other priority areas of work. Today’s is unusual in that it follows on from one set out under the same Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in October. 

That October agenda included a commitment to implementing a so-called imprints regime for digital election material. This requires political ads to say who paid for them but currently applies only to offline campaign materials like leaflets - this sort of transparency is crucial for elections in a democracy. 

During the most recent election, we saw inappropriate and misleading tactics at a level we had not before, showing that reforms to ensure proper transparency and accountability in online campaigns are vital. 

The government itself has acknowledged the importance of extending imprint rules to digital communications, saying in May that they were “essential for promoting fact-based political debate and tackling disinformation online”. 

But today’s Queen’s Speech makes no specific mention of the imprints regime, and shifts its commitment for a consultation on wider election integrity to an ‘aim’.

It may be that these plans are still progressing, but we are disappointed at the lack of a clear commitment to the bare minimum of what is needed to protect our elections.

Further problems that must be addressed are the scale and targeting of online ad campaigns. Unlike offline campaigns, where many people see the same billboards, online campaigns generate millions of ads targeted at small, specific groups of people. 

Not only does this go against the democratic principle that elections be a shared experience, it is almost impossible to scrutinise all the messaging used in such large campaigns, and it’s hard to find out who is being targeted and why.

To tackle this, we need a public database of online ads that is machine-readable and provided in real time, with detailed information on who ads are targeted at, who they reach, how much has been spent on them and by whom.

We had hoped that technical proposals for implementing the imprint rule online - originally promised by the end of this year - would include some of these measures. Now, we are concerned that they will be pushed back once again.

We are not alone in these calls: the Electoral Commission, the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, along with many other civil society groups, have all been calling for reforms for years.

Alongside these organisations, Full Fact will continue pushing the government to stick to its pre-election commitment to reform electoral law with urgency. 

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