A key milestone in our campaign
The Government’s long-awaited response to the DCMS’s Disinformation and Fake News Inquiry was issued yesterday. This is an important milestone for our campaign, launched in May 2018, because the committee, chaired by Damian Collins MP, has conducted a thorough, wide-ranging and high-profile investigation of the topic of disinformation.
The headline is that the response is certainly more progress for the 4-point plan we’ve been championing. However, it ducks decisive action in several key areas.
Significant success for imprints and political ad transparency
To take each point of our 4-point plan in turn:
1. Compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online adverts
This certainly seems to be very positive and a definitive ‘tick’ for our plan, which is great news. The Government’s response states, ‘Candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners are currently required to have an imprint on any printed election material, to demonstrate that they have produced it. Extending this to include digital communications is essential for promoting fact-based political debate and tackling disinformation online.’ The timeframe the response gives is to bring ‘the technical proposal for this regime later on this year.’ This is certainly welcome and, as the Electoral Commission first raised the issue in 2003, long overdue!
2. Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
The DCMS committee put forward a recommendation almost word for word what we’ve advocated in our plan, stating that ‘political advertising items should be publicly accessible in a searchable repository – who is paying for the ads, which organisations are sponsoring the ad, who is being targeted by the ads – so that members of the public can understand the behaviour of individual advertisers. It should be run independently of the advertising industry and of political parties.’
This too appears to have produced a welcome positive response. There is recognition that the solutions which platforms have developed, although good in themselves, ‘are far from perfect, and … more needs to be done to increase transparency.’ The Government proposes that the Code of Practice regarding disinformation cited in the Online Harms white paper should include the expectation that companies will ‘improve the overall transparency of political advertising on their platforms.’
However, as we’ve previously argued, the digital advertising market is complex, and audiences reached by Facebook can also be reached via various other platforms and media owners. The recommendation made was precise but the response has been much less so. We will continue to engage, with the aim of ensuring that these standards are common to all media owners and tech platforms, and that, in order to maintain its integrity, the repository is also truly independent.
Political parties need to walk the walk
3. Require all objective factual claims used in political adverts to be substantiated.
4. Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so
In relation to the last 2 points of our plan, the DCMS committee recommended ‘a comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations surrounding political work during elections and referenda.’ This point was also backed up recently by the Information Commissioner’s Office’s Elizabeth Denham, who made clear her disappointment with the Online Harms white paper in her evidence to the recent DCMS subcommittee, noting that it was ‘a gap’ not to have ‘a comprehensive examination … of the oversight needed’ for political advertising. You can watch this part of her testimony here.
Trust and transparency are the central themes of the Online Harms white paper. There is understandable focus on the tech platforms and foreign actors in the inquiry overall and in the Government’s responses. However, the breakdown of trust in politicians and politics currently is not going to be remedied without political parties and politicians also changing their behaviour.
The Advertising Standards Authority – the regulator for all advertising excluding political advertising – says that by far the majority of complaints it receives are over misleading claims. In his evidence, the CEO of the ASA also told the DCMS committee that ‘everyone wishes that political advertising [content] was regulated,’ including him.
Are the public going to be satisfied that disinformation in politics has been addressed, despite the ignoring of advertising content – where political parties can say almost anything they want in political ads? For a recent example, this thread, examining the untransparent campaign waged by ‘Britain’s Future’, provides a case study of the problem that would help to solve. We’ve also some well-known examples at the bottom of this page.
The Government response to this point seems a bit of a fudge. They state ‘the Government will continue to work with the Electoral Commission and political parties to identify and implement any reforms and clarifications to the law, regulations and practices around campaigning. We are committed to ensuring that the law and regulations around campaigning are up-to-date with technological advances in campaign techniques.’
Within the scope of that response we shall, of course, continue working to influence the regulation of political advertising content. We assume the newly established subcommittee on Disinformation and Fake News could be one way to do that.
Our campaign pledge offers an interim solution while we wait for legislation
In the meantime, the good news is that last week we launched our campaign pledge for responsible political advertising. Legislation can take a while to be influenced, drafted and implemented. The pledge offers a way for political parties to work to principles in line with our 4-point plan. We see it as a starting point and welcome feedback. We are delighted, however, that Change UK – The Independent Group are the first party to sign up and are implementing it immediately as part of their European Election campaign.
The pledge includes a commitment to suspend or amend objective factual claims that are deemed to be misleading by nominated fact-checking services Full Fact, Channel 4’s Factcheck or the BBC’s Reality Check as a proxy for a content regulator.
We are in conversation with several other parties. Our aspiration is to get as many as possible to sign up to it while we are waiting for legislation to be implemented. If you are a political advertiser and want to discuss the pledge, please email me. We’d love to take you through it.
Some other areas of interest
We chose the 4 areas in our plan to be hard to argue against, so we could easily build consensus, but which would have a major impact on restoring the integrity of our political processes.
There are many other important areas covered by the Government’s response.
For example, it is doing a lot of good work with ‘the Electoral Commission on statutory Codes of Practice for registered parties and candidates on electoral expenses … [to provide] clarity on digital campaigning election expenses. The Codes should come into force for the next major elections scheduled to take place in 2021 and 2022.’
Data use and targeting are, of course, high in the public’s awareness following revelations over the last few years. The Government response also states that the ‘Chair of the [newly opened] Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) [is] to investigate the advances in targeting and profiling practices, and consider what steps can be taken to ensure they are understood and trusted by the public, while best supporting business.’
However, as a cross-party body, the DCMS committee had asked for ‘an independent investigation into past elections – including the UK election of 2017, the UK Referendum of 2016, and the Scottish Referendum of 2014 – to explore what actually happened with regard to foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation, and the sharing of data, so that appropriate changes to the law can be made and lessons can be learnt for future elections and referenda.’
We predict that the Government’s response on this is likely to be read as political by the media, given what the DCMS committee and the Mueller Report in the US have uncovered on disinformation. The proposal is rejected, with a claim that it cannot be done on legal grounds. However, the Government’s response goes on to state confidently that ‘there is no evidence of successful foreign interference in UK democratic processes, this includes the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election.’