Today marks the second day of the Unit’s conference on the Johnson government’s constitutional reform agenda, for which free tickets remain available. One of today’s speakers, Kate Dommett, argues that the government’s proposals to tackle the challenges posed by digital campaigning are far from comprehensive, leaving many unanswered questions for future governments to address.
Five years on from the Brexit referendum and the Cambridge Analytica scandal that emerged in its wake, the government is poised to publish its Electoral Integrity Bill. Proposing ‘significant changes to the electoral and democratic system’, it could be presumed that Boris Johnson’s government is about to enact an ambitious programme of constitutional change that will update electoral systems to the digital age. Yet, from the details available so far – including a new announcement this week – it seems Johnson’s government is failing to address six critical questions about digital campaigning, leaving considerable room for further reform.
The rise of digital technology in campaigning
The rise of digital campaigning has been a slow and steady phenomenon in UK elections, but in recent years there has been significant attention paid to the need for electoral reform. The current regulation governing electoral campaigning can be found in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act (PPERA) that was passed in 2000. Since then the adoption of websites, social media profiles and, more recently, online advertising by electoral campaigners has raised questions about the suitability of existing legislation. Indeed, a range of parliamentary committees, civil society bodies, academics and even digital companies such as Facebook, have asserted a need for urgent digital campaigning regulation.
Publishing a report devoted to digital campaigning in 2018, the Electoral Commission has been at the forefront of these debates. Its analysis revealed the rapid rise of digital tools in elections, showing increasing amounts are being spent on digital advertising. Updating its statistics to include the last election, Figure 1 (below) shows that spending on digital advertising has increased to around £7.5 million, and now represents a significant proportion of election campaign spend.
Despite evidence of the increased use of digital tools, and a raft of concerns about foreign interference, misinformation, online manipulation, privacy infringements and much besides, the use of digital technology has remained almost entirely unregulated. Moreover, there is little transparency about how digital technology is being used, making it exceptionally difficult to understand what is happening, let alone to hold those responsible for problematic practices to account. What the Electoral Reform Society has described as a ‘Wild West’ of campaigning has therefore flourished, leading to urgent calls for electoral reform.
The Conservatives’ record on digital reform
Against this backdrop it is notable that, back in 2019, a few months before Boris Johnson assumed his position as Prime Minister, the UK government announced its intention to ‘make the internet work for everyone – for citizens, businesses and society as a whole’. Promoting a vision of Britain as a ‘world leader in digital technology’ the government seemed committed to embracing the impact of new technology and transforming all aspects of modern government and society.
Fast forward a few years, and progress on digital transformation has, however, been painfully slow. Despite launching an ambitious Online Safety White Paper that has required significant time and energy, the government has taken little action to address the impact of digital technology on society. Indeed, speaking in 2020 the former Chancellor George Osborne reflected that ‘It feels as if government and administration in the UK, and other countries, has fallen behind where technology in society has got to.’
In relation to election campaigning, this lack of reform is reflected in the Electoral Integrity Bill which, whilst not yet released, seems poised to pursue only limited change (as discussed on this blog in April). Much of the attention paid to this bill so far has been devoted to the requirement for voter ID at the polling station, and yet it is likely that it will also contain certain provisions focused on digital campaigning. In the main, these appear to be centred on extending the imprints regime that currently regulates offline campaign material, making it necessary for online material to declare who is promoting a message.
Whilst digital imprints do mark a step forward, and this proposal is therefore to be welcomed, it is important to note that it was made by the Electoral Commission as early as 2003. Whilst representing an important extension in electoral law, it therefore fails to address the many complexities and challenges that digital technology is posing for regulation today.
Six challenges of regulating digital campaigning
On current evidence Johnson’s electoral reform efforts therefore appear severely limited when it comes to digital campaigning. Indeed, they appear to fail to address six important questions:
- Is money still the best measure?
First, Johnson’s reforms appear to have dodged the question of whether money is still the best measure by which to secure electoral oversight and accountability. Digital technology has created cheaper, more instantaneous and easily accessible resources for campaigners to utilise, allowing a range of new actors (within and beyond the UK) to engage in election campaigns. These changes raise important questions about whether current financial disclosure thresholds are still appropriate in the context of digital campaigning. Yet they also raise questions about the other types of resource that have become important in campaigns. Whereas in the past campaigners relied on activists, increasingly data has become the new currency of campaigning. At present, however, regulation doesn’t fully capture this development, nor the advantage it offers well-resourced campaigns or those who possess valuable data sets. This raises the question of whether money is the best measure for overseeing digital campaigning.
2. The end of the electoral campaign period?
In addition to lowering barriers to entry, digital technology and the incentive to gather data about voters has also served to extend the period in which campaigning occurs. Actors now have an incentive to forge links with voters and gather databases outside of a formal election period. Whilst there are signs that the new digital imprint legislation will reflect this change, at present there is little sign of the regulatory period being extended more broadly, meaning we have little understanding of what happens beyond formal election campaigns.
3. Working with social media companies
Third, faced with the growing use of technology, regulators are increasingly reliant upon relationships with social media companies. Their understanding of what is happening, their ability to verify spending returns and to take action against problematic content is therefore tied to the quality of their relationship with digital companies. To date, interviews I’ve done with regulators have shown that platforms like Facebook and Google have been broadly cooperative, but there is no guarantee that in the future such cooperation will be forthcoming. Whilst the Online Safety legislation is set to empower Ofcom with regulating social media, the proposals don’t stray far into the electoral realm, leaving many unanswered questions about how regulators should work with these companies to deliver effective, ongoing oversight.
4. Determining what citizens need to know
Fourth, in recent years there has been much debate about the need for additional transparency around digital campaigning in order to allow citizens to understand what they are seeing online and how they are being targeted. To date, however, there has been limited reflection on the question of what exactly citizens need to know. With digital imprints providing detail on the source of campaign material, there remain a raft of questions about whether citizens (or regulators) need to be able to understand how digital campaign material was targeted, whether campaigners are presenting contradictory messages, or if claims are true. The debate about what exactly needs to be transparent is therefore far from clear (a point I have discussed in more detail before). In practice this means that citizens’ understanding of the online space is being dictated by what campaigners themselves or social media companies decide to disclose (in addition to the information in imprints). The question of what should be transparent is therefore currently being answered in very different ways.
5. What is being regulated?
There is also a question about what is or is not in scope. In recent years much attention has been paid to the rise of political advertising, but digital technology allows campaigns to connect with voters in a multitude of new ways. From influencer campaigns to geo-targeted social media content that targets you with a message dependent on where you are, there are a range of ways in which digital media could be used. At present there are few signs of how the government is working to future-proof the regulation of elections against such developments, making it likely that regulators will be encountering new and challenging problems for many years to come.
6. How should regulators work together?
Finally, there is a question about the regulatory landscape and how it can most effectively foster collaboration. Digital presents a specific challenge because it spans the work of so many different regulatory bodies. The Electoral Commission, Information Commissioners’ Office, Advertising Standards Agency and Ofcom conduct relevant work in this area. Whilst it looks like the government may be poised to allow more information sharing between regulators, there does not appear to be a more concerted plan for how to make these regulators work more effectively together – to collaborate and share expertise to tackle these challenging issues.
In sum, whilst the Johnson government has moved to take at least some action to update electoral campaigning law, its progress to tackle the challenges posed by digital campaigning is far from comprehensive, leaving many unanswered questions for future governments to address.
This post is the first in a series of posts by speakers at the Unit’s conference on the government’s constitutional reform agenda. Dr Dommett’s session was entitled Elections and Referendums: Updating Campaign Regulation for the Digital Era, and she appeared alongside Unit Deputy Director Dr Alan Renwick, Professor Rachel Gibson and Electoral Commission Chair John Pullinger (whose blog on this topic is also available). The panel is available free of charge on YouTube and on our podcast.
About the author
Dr Kate Dommett is Senior Lecturer in the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on digital campaigning, elections, data and political advertising. Find out more at her website: www.katedommett.com or follow her on Twitter, @KateDommett.