Home / Blog / Does the government recognise and understand the urgency around issues that need addressing in modern UK elections?

Does the government recognise and understand the urgency around issues that need addressing in modern UK elections?

Alex Tait

Yesterday the Government published its response to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s interim report on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

The DCMS inquiry report’s recommendations, issued in July, were broad and wide-ranging. Our interest in them naturally centred on political advertising and campaigning. When they were published we commented that the report represented significant progress in thinking on the topic, although we had suggestions on how it could be developed further, which you can read here.

As advertising practitioners we may not be well versed in reading government responses, but, given the immense importance of the issue, this one seems to fall quite far short. Commentators have already noted that some key recommendations appear to have been kicked into the long grass. Quite a few issues are referred on to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation for consideration, or it is proposed that action should be delayed pending the outcome of the government consultation ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’.

We believe that for all the reasons we have previously given, urgent action is needed to restore and maintain the integrity of our electoral processes. We believe that the political code we proposed, in response to a request a few months ago from Damian Collins MP in the marketing trade press, needs to be considered in the final DCMS report and reflected in the Government’s final response.

Currently the Government’s response deals with the points in the draft code as follows:

  • Factual claims – a regulator should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made. We believe these should be pre-cleared, as is currently the case with TV ads via Clearcast.

This wasn’t covered initially in the DCMS report and therefore hasn’t been in the Government’s response. For the fact that lying in political ads is currently permissible not to be covered in an inquiry into disinformation was a significant omission. It was, however, subsequently covered in Damian Collin’s suggestion for a political ad code so we would expect this to be in the final DCMS recommendation. We will be submitting evidence to the DCMS inquiry on our thoughts of how this area should be tackled.

  • Imprints – all advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and whom it is promoting.

The Government will wait until their ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’ consultation is published. Following this they will consider how imprints on online content could be implemented more widely.

  • Messaging transparency – a searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Again the government states that this will be considered following the conclusion of its ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation. We note, however, that the proposal for a searchable database is not included in the scope of that consultation.

Facebook’s recent UK launch of tools allowing greater transparency on their platform received a lot of PR last week and should be commended. However, there is a danger that there is taken to be a solution to the transparency issue. It isn’t. It can play an important part but we need an independently run database of ads served across the digital marketing ecosystem to allow interrogation by interested parties including citizens, journalists and researchers. As we’ve mentioned before Facebook is an important player but political ads can achieve the same or greater reach of the population via a combination of numerous other platforms and media owners.

  • Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so.

There needs to be a body overseeing political ad regulation. Although this is not explicitly agreed in the Government’s response, we are assuming it will be picked up during discussions with the Advertising Standards Authority when the DCMS takes evidence from them. We believe the Electoral Commission should also be part of this process.

We proposed some points in addition to those Collins raised in his call for an ad code:

  • Political advertising should be restricted to registered campaigns during the regulated election period.

We interpret the Government’s response to mean that they will be able to give a full response on this point early in 2019, after publication of the outcome of the ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation.

  • Targeting. Potentially a contentious issue, but we believe there are three main options:
  1. Comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and upcoming ePrivacy Directive.
  2. Ban micro-targeting in digital generally (not only in social media).
  3. Specifically ban certain types of targeting. We believe the suggestion of the DCMS that look-alike targeting should be banned does not go far enough, and that to achieve the goal other types of targeting would need to be ruled out. A limit to the number of messages sent has also been suggested.

This also all appears to be kicked into the long grass with a referral that it will be dealt with by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is an excellent initiative and we welcome it. Its remit of ‘targeting, fairness (of algorithms), transparency (for data), liability, data access and intellectual property and ownership’ seems to empower it to tackle the topic . We suspect, however, that due to its scope it will take a while to set up, let alone reach any conclusions on this area.

The government consultation on ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’ also covers the following specific topics:

  • ‘The Government should consult on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners
  • the Government should extend electoral law requirements for an imprint on campaigning materials to electronic communications.’

Damian Collins has been an excellent champion of much needed change in this area. He called for the code for political advertising to be in place by the next elections in May 2019. As we have previously pointed out, we live in fractious political times and would like to play our part in moving this deadline forward, in view of the possibility of other elections being called in the meantime.

We as a coalition of advertising and marketing practitioners believe that modernising the rules around political advertising is one of the most pressing issues of our time. This response potentially shows a worrying disconnect with the government’s understanding of the issues or this urgency. Damian Collins has stated he was “disappointed” with this interim response and he has made a statement that can be read here. We need the DCMS inquiry to redouble its efforts to push forward the need for change in this area and the government’s final response to react responsibly to this.

We urge the government to prioritise this.

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