We need specific recommendations from the Electoral Commission on how to deal with disinformation in elections

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The Electoral Commission has changed its tone on disinformation in elections and referendums. That is a good development for democracy, but specific recommendations are needed on how to deal with the problem.

Our campaign to reform the rules around political advertising is two years old this month. It is extraordinary, as we’ve pointed out many times, that for all the talk and recommendations from a number of inquiries over the last few years there is still no sign of moves to introduce effective change in this area.

For content in electoral political advertising there are almost no rules. As advertising practitioners we were baffled by the glaring inconsistency between the rigorous standards of the Advertising Standards Authority in consumer advertising and the absence of anything remotely comparable for electoral advertising. In setting up the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising a key area we called for reform in were rules to prevent misleading material claims or, as the general public calls it, lying.

There could have been no more graphic demonstration of the need for reform than the 2019 general election. We documented blatantly misleading advertising from all the main parties in our review of the election period: our report was trenchantly titled Illegal, Indecent, Dishonest and Untruthful: how political advertising in the 2019 general election let us down.

We feel that we have now reached a crucial moment with public frustration at this arms race of disinformation. We suspect that some of this is due to the fact that the Covid-19 coronavirus has shown that similar techniques can not only be corrosive for democracy in elections, they can also have lethal consequences in the context of a global pandemic.

The Electoral Commission’s policies regarding electoral advertising have historically focused on such admittedly important areas as campaign funding and transparency to the virtual exclusion of what is communicated in adverts.

Accordingly, reading the Commission’s review released last month of the 2019 UK election we welcome how their position appears to have developed. They note there, as one of three key challenges posed by evolving election campaign strategies, that ‘misleading content and presentation techniques are undermining voters’ trust in election campaigns’. They comment in the review that ‘democracies rely on campaigners being able to communicate with voters. In return, voters need to be able to trust the information that campaigners are giving them’.

This very welcome step forward has evidently been prompted by the Electoral Commission’s researching of public attitudes. The level of public concern they found mirrors our own YouGov research, in which we asked the UK public, ‘Do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate’. No less than 87% of respondents answered that it should.

Now the Electoral Commission observes that ‘At the 2019 general election, voters were concerned about the use of misleading campaign techniques by campaigners from across the political spectrum. During the campaign period, we reminded campaigners that voters are entitled to transparency and integrity, and called on all campaigners to undertake their vital role responsibly.’

They continue, ‘There is evidence from our research after the election that concerns about truthfulness and transparency are having an impact on public trust and confidence:

  • More than half of people (58%) agreed with the statement that, in general, “campaigning online is untrue or misleading”
  • A similar proportion (60%) disagreed that “information available online about politics is trustworthy”.’

Given the many recommendations made over the last few years in a number of reports, including the Disinformation and Fake News report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Electoral Commission’s paragraph proposing steps to be taken is disappointingly light on detail.

They state ‘we have signalled our concern about these issues before. If voters lose trust and confidence in political campaigning, democracy as a whole will suffer. Campaigners, candidates and parties themselves need to take greater responsibility for the presentation and content of campaigns they run and the impact of their activities on public confidence in elections.

We cannot afford to miss the window of opportunity between now and the next scheduled general election. There needs to be real change to protect trust and confidence in campaigns at future elections and the integrity of our democracy. It will take governments, parties, campaigners, social media companies and regulators to work together to agree new laws or standards of conduct. We will support this work.’

Given the escalation we are seeing in discreditable political campaigning techniques, it is simply not sufficient to urge political advertisers to show greater responsibility: in our review of the election we recommended that the Advertising Standards Authority should be given teeth to enforce these ‘laws or standards of conduct’.

Through conversations with MPs and Lords, the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising has gained many supporters for its proposals, most recently from the All-Party Group for Compassionate Politics, which was launched in March and is chaired by Baroness Warsi and Debbie Abrahams MP.

We’ve also given evidence to the House of Lords’ Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies which is due to report its recommendations in June.

To be clear, we really do welcome the direction of recommendations in the Electoral Commission’s report. We continue to lobby for this essential reform and are very willing to assist in drafting the detail of how it could be implemented.

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