Electoral Commission calls for online political posts to be better regulated

  • The UK’s electoral monitoring agency has called for new laws.
  • It wants online ads to follow strict rules showing who is funding them.
  • Comes the day after Theresa May accused Russia of trying to “undermine” British democracy.

LONDON — The UK’s Electoral Commission has called for changes to the law in order to better regulate online political campaigning.

The commission — an independent body which oversees elections and political spending in Britain — recommended that online posts by political parties and campaigning groups should identify who has published the material.

In a report released on Tuesday, it said: “Requiring imprints on digital or online campaign material, for example, would enable voters and the public to be confident about who is trying to influence them during election campaigns.”

An imprint is a formal statement of who an advert is published by. Failure to include the information should be punishable by a fine, the commission said.

It noted that the increased use of digital campaigning in the 2017 general election provided new opportunities for campaigners but also increased risks to transparency.

Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Most candidates, parties and campaigners comply with the rules.

“However, failures to comply can reduce transparency and damage voters’ confidence in elections, which is why breaches must be dealt with effectively.

“We want to work with the UK’s governments and legislatures to ensure further transparency about spending on digital and online campaigns, and to reassure voters accordingly. These changes should be in place ahead of the next scheduled national elections.”

The report says: “There was commentary and concern raised during and after the election about the use of enhanced direct targeting techniques and software such as ‘bots’ as campaign tools… Voters and others should be reassured that spending on creating or using such campaigning techniques to produce and disseminate election campaign material is covered by the existing expenditure rules.

“Greater transparency is needed about who is responsible for producing and publishing the actual campaign material generated by such techniques.”

On Monday evening Theresa May accused Russia of running a covert propaganda war using fake news to “sow discord” in the west and “meddle in elections.”

The prime minister said: “[Russia] is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.”

The commission insists that it is not a “truth commission” and does not want to regulate what is fact or fiction in political campaigning.

It said: “First, we do not regulate the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including misinformation; nor are we seeking an extension to our remit to include these issues.

“We have been clear that asking us to act as a political advertising ‘truth commission’ would risk damaging our ability to carry out our political finance regulatory role.

“Second, the UK’s political finance rules have never sought to regulate wider political speech in our democratic society, and we do not regulate spending on activities which are not intended to influence voters’ choices at UK elections.”

At the beginning of November, it was announced that the commission would investigate UKIP donor Arron Banks over his donations during the EU referendum last year and whether Banks or his company, Better for the Country Limited, breached campaign finance rules.

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