Urgent action is required to improve transparency around the targeting of voters online, the Electoral Commission has claimed.
The Commission, which regulates party and election finance in the UK, claims that the new measures are required because of "the increasing use of online and targeted digital communications with voters, as well as concerns about recent allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference".
It follows a study of how digital campaigning was conducted during the Brexit referendum and UK General Election of 2017 along with a survey of public opinion. Evidence has since emerged of murky funding arrangements, potential overseas interference, and disinformation campaigns carried out over social media.
Action must be taken by the government to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age
"Urgent action must be taken by the UK's government to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age," said the chair of the Electoral Commission, Sir John Holmes.
He continued: "Implementing our package of recommendations will significantly increase transparency about who is seeking to influence voters online, and the money spent on this at UK elections and referendums."
The Commission has produced a report Digital campaigning: increasing transparency for voters setting out its recommendations. The report covers the running, funding and payment of political digital campaigns, a fast growing aspect of all kinds of elections and one in which legislation has fallen behind the technological capabilities.
The report notes that it can be very difficult to find out where a particular advert or message originated from due to the use of astroturfing (fake grassroots campaigns), software bots promoting particular points of view, so-called troll farms and 'fake' social media accounts.
To improve transparency it recommends that all online campaigns should feature an identifying digital imprint, as is required for printed materials. This was a requirement in the Scottish Independence referendum, and the Commission judges it to have worked "fairly well".
The digital campaign asset trail should be made much clearer, it says with campaigners required to provide "more detailed and meaningful invoices" from their digital suppliers to improve transparency.
In another recommendation the Commission says all UK election and referendum adverts on social media platforms should be labelled to make the source clear.
And it called for harsher fines for those breaking the political finance rules. "We are worried that a maximum fine of £20,000 risks becoming a cost of doing business for some campaigners," it says.
The Commission makes a series of recommendations to social media platforms, particularly around foreign funding and the provenance of ads, noting that these platforms should be capable of doing this as they have begun to vet election materials in other countries. Such arrangements would be voluntary, at least to begin with.
"Facebook, Google and Twitter have said that they will put in place new controls to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections in the United States are actually based there.
"We would like to see similar controls introduced for elections and referendums in the UK," it said, adding that the UK government should clarify the rules on foreign spending.
"A specific ban on any campaign spending from abroad would further strengthen the UK's election and referendum rules. Digital and social media companies' own controls would be one set of tools to stop foreign spending on digital advertising or promotion."
Similar tools are already in place for digital rights enforcement, the Commission points out.
"They have developed tools to help make sure their users do not break copyright laws. They have also shown that it is possible to take action on political adverts. For American elections coming up in autumn 2018, Facebook, Google and Twitter have said they will check whether campaigners are based in the USA.
"We want digital and social media companies to make sure their policies on political adverts better reflect our election and referendum campaign rules."
Social media firms should take responsibility for removing campaign materials of unknown origin and informing the UK authorities when they suspect campaigners have broken the rules, it says.
The Commission will monitor how well the digital and social media companies' voluntary proposals work at upcoming elections.
"If the proposals don't work well, the UK's governments and legislators should consider direct regulation," it says.
It also asks for increased powers to obtain information, particularly while campaigns are going on. This follows criticism that suspected foul play over the Brexit referendum will not be fully investigated until after the UK already has left the EU.
"Digital campaigning materials can be distributed instantaneously to large target audiences. It can have an immediate effect on an election or referendum campaign. It is therefore important that we are able to look into concerns about a campaign. We want to do this in ‘real-time', as well as after a vote," it says.
The Commission has a team of monitors that look into election financing, but larger political parties are given six months to provide evidence of spending.
Ideally it moves to stop wrongdoing before it happens rather than after the fact, a spokesperson told Computing, so is seeking both increased powers and better tools to be able to track spend much more quickly to equip it for the digital age.
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