The Electoral Commission has published a report which provides an analysis of the problems posed by digital campaigning and a set of recommendations to remedy them.
The Electoral Commission’s acknowledgment of the concern and confusion it found amongst voters whilst researching the issue of campaign transparency is very helpful.
Much of the mainstream media have characterised those concerned about decaying democratic norms as a small number of sore losers; we now have strong evidence to the contrary.
The diagnoses of our democratic ailments is the best part of the report. Unfortunately, the solutions proposed are firmly within the Electoral Commission’s comfort zone and will do little to promote lasting change.
Campaigns can continue to lie in their advertisements
The Electoral Commission research highlights that voters’ concerns relate to “both the content and source” of political advertising.
The report explores solutions to problems relating to uncertainty around “the source” of ads but doesn’t address voters’ worries around misleading content.
The Electoral Commission simply states that “we are not in a position to monitor the truthfulness of campaign claims”.
There is not a single mention in the report as to how they propose to remedy this situation.
Given that one of the functions required of the Electoral Commission is to “make recommendations about how to improve the fairness and transparency of our democracy” that’s a fairly significant omission.
The issue of campaigners using deliberately misleading factual claims is the elephant in the room of political advertising regulation and the Electoral Commission have again tried to ignore it.
Passing the buck
The Electoral Commission says it is positive that social media companies are planning to create databases of all the UK election adverts run on their platforms.
Their hope is that they “publish their data in the same format”; one assumes that if the tech companies are happy to oblige the Electoral Commission they will create a single overarching database.
The report could have called for legislation that requires political campaigners to publish every advert they produce directly to a database run by the Electoral Commission.
This more radical approach would put UK Parliaments more in control of their election campaigns and make them less reliant on the good will of the social media companies; it would prevent political campaigners using platforms or media owners who have yet to pledge to keep databases of political ads; it would future-proof against new platforms that emerge (who are unlikely to prioritise political advert transparency).
Putting all the burden on these companies, rather than the creators of the ads and the Electoral Commission, is shirking the responsibility of running fair and transparent elections.
The tech companies’ databases would be a useful way to check that political campaigners are indeed publishing their work to the Electoral Commission site. However, relying on them as the only source of transparency is lazy and risky.
The report says that if the self-regulation doesn’t work “the UK’s governments and legislators should consider direct regulation”.
Given how infrequently Parliament changes electoral law, taking a “wait and see” approach is missing a rare opportunity to change things for the better and leaves our elections more open to future manipulation than is necessary.
There’s no one in charge and that’s fine
The foreword of the Electoral Commission’s report acknowledges “that no single body is responsible for all the concerns raised by digital campaigning”.
Given the scale and complexity of the problems that the report goes on to detail, it seems odd that the Electoral Commission doesn’t demand the powers that would make themselves responsible.
The Electoral Commission’s comfort zone is delivery of elections (ballot papers, reminders to vote etc…), regulating political finance and monitoring campaign spending.
This is particularly apparent in the fact that 11 of their 17 recommendations are related to campaign spending.
But the world has moved on and reporting on who has spent what is no longer enough.
The Electoral Commission must either take up the challenge presented by digital campaigning or propose a reduction to their remit and the creation of a body that can.