The UK Electoral Commission (EC) has called for urgent changes to online political campaigning following recent revelations of the use of data from social media and suspicions of dark foreign money being used to fund online campaigns. And there are also serious concerns about the use of fake social media accounts, online 'bots' and the lack of clarity about who is actually behind any message.
"The use of social media was first heralded as a positive revolution in the mass engagement of voters. More recently we have seen serious allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference. Concerns that our democracy may be under threat have emerged." Says the report.
And one graph in the report shows how the reported spending on digital political campaign advertising has increased 0.3% of total spend to 42.8% of total spend in the six years between 2011 and 2017!
The Commission has come out with 17 recommendations covering new rules and more powers for itself:
1. The law should be changed so that all political digital material must have an imprint that shows who is behind the campaign and who created it.
2. To improve transparency, campaigners should be required to provide more detailed and meaningful invoices from digital suppliers.
3. Campaign spending reports should be categorised in order to give more information about many spent on digital campaigns.
4. UK election and referendum advertisements on social media should be clearly labelled so that the source is clear and online databases of political adverts should follow election and referendum rules.
5. Campaign related staffing costs to be included in campaign spending limits.
6. The EC will make proposals to UK national and regional governments to improve campaign spend reporting.
7. The time at which campaign spending rules apply before an election or referendum should be reviewed.
8. Social media should be responsible for ensuring that those paying to place campaign adverts are based or registered to vote in the UK.
9. Clarification is needed on what foreign spending is or is not allowed on UK political campaigning as well as how to enforce it and if there are any repercussions on free speech.
10. It should be laid out clearly in law that campaigners cannot take accept funding from companies that do not make enough money in the UK to fund the amount of any donation or loan.
11. UK law-makers should consider, with the EC, on how to improve controls on donations and loans so that foreign money is prevented from being used.
12. All new parties and campaigners with assets or liabilities over £500 have to declare them on registration and also include cost estimates of money spent on the data they hold.
13. The EC should have real time powers to help the gathering of timely information.
14. The EC powers to share information with other agencies should be increased.
15. The maximum fine the EC can impose should be increased.
16. The EC should be given the power to investigate and sanction candidates for breaking candidate rules, something that only the police and prosecutors can do at present.
17. Social media should improve their policies on campaign material and advertising for elections and referendums in the UK.