How the new sub-committee on disinformation can help strengthen democracy in the digital age

Michela.Palese (1)In April 2019 the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee established a sub-committee to continue its inquiry into disinformation and data privacy in the digital age. Michela Palese considers the motivations underlying the establishment of this sub-committee, its stated priorities, and how it can help confront the challenges and threats to our democratic processes arising from online campaigning.

Last month the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee launched a new Sub-Committee on Disinformation. Its task is to become ‘Parliament’s institutional home’ for matters concerning disinformation and data privacy; a focal point that will bring together those seeking to scrutinise and examine threats to democracy.’

The new sub-committee promises to offer an ongoing channel through which to gather evidence on disinformation and online political campaigning, and to highlight the urgent need for government, parliament, tech companies and others to take action so as to protect the integrity of our political system from online threats.

Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, explained that the sub-committee was created because of:

‘concerns about the spread of disinformation and the pivotal role that social media plays. Disinformation is a growing issue for democracy and society, and robust public policy responses are needed to tackle it at source, as well as through the channels through which it is shared. We need to look principally at the responsibilities of big technology companies to act more effectively against the dissemination of disinformation, to provide more tools for their users to help them identify untrustworthy sources of information, and to provide greater transparency about who is promoting that content.’

The sub-committee follows up on the significant work conducted as part of the DCMS committee’s long-running inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, whose final report was published in February 2019.

This inquiry ran for 18 months, held 23 oral evidence sessions, and took evidence from 73 witnesses: its final report contained a series of important conclusions and recommendations.

Among these, the report called on the government to look at how UK law should define ‘digital campaigning’ and ‘online political advertising’, and to acknowledge the role and influence of unpaid campaigns and Facebook groups both outside and during regulated campaign periods. It also advocated the creation of a code of practice around the political use of personal data, which would offer transparency about how people’s data are being collected and used, and about what messages users are being targeted with and by whom. It would also mean that political parties would have to take greater responsibility with regards to the use of personal data for political purposes, and ensure compliance with data protection and user consent legislation. Continue reading

The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

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Nominations for election to the European Parliament closed on Thursday. We now know which parties will be contesting the elections (if they happen), and who those parties have selected to stand for them in each region of the UK. The Unit’s Alan Renwick offers a brief guide to how the elections will work and what we can expect to learn from them.

With little sign of progress in the Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party, UK participation in next month’s European Parliament elections looks increasingly likely. The parties have nominated their candidates and begun to launch their campaigns. Much is being said about how the electoral system will shape the outcome, but not all of it is accurate. This post provides a quick guide to the key points and reaches two main conclusions. First, the system will disadvantage small parties: in particular, the anti-Brexit parties will be punished for their disunity. Second, anyone wanting to read the results as a proxy second Brexit referendum will need to do so with great care.

1. The system is proportional…

The UK uses a system of proportional representation (PR) for European Parliament elections. To be precise, it uses two different systems. England, Scotland, and Wales use a list-based form of PR, which was introduced to replace the old First Past the Post system in 1999. This is based on 11 regions, each electing between three and ten MEPs. Each party puts up a list of candidates and voters choose one party’s list. The seats are allocated to the parties in each region in proportion to the votes that they have won.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR ever since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Each party again puts up a slate of candidates. But voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, and these votes are counted and transferred according to the preferences expressed until the three seats available have been filled.

Proportional systems make it easier than under First Past the Post for small parties to secure seats. Last time around, for example, the Green Party won three seats with 7.87% of the vote, whereas in 1989, under First Past the Post, it famously captured 14.5% of the vote but no seats at all.

2. …but not all that proportional

‘Proportional’ systems vary in just how proportional they are. In fact, neither of the systems used in the UK is especially so, for two reasons. First, the number of seats available in each region constrains how far it is possible to allocate seats proportionally. In the North East of England, for example, where there are only three seats, it is clearly impossible for any more than three parties to win representation. Even the largest region – the South East, with ten seats – is quite small in seat terms, making it impossible to reflect the pattern of votes perfectly in the allocation of seats. Continue reading

Is there time for another referendum before the new Brexit deadline?

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of Brexit news. Campaigners for a no-deal outcome have made themselves heard—as have campaigners for a second vote. But the new Halloween Brexit deadline is just over six months away. This raises the question: is there time to hold another referendum before we leave? And would it be possible to conduct such a vote in a proper manner? Alan Renwick addresses the key questions and concludes that a properly conducted referendum is preferable to a speedy one.

In a report published last autumn, my colleagues and I at the Unit calculated that it takes at least 22 weeks—roughly five months—to hold a referendum in the UK. That allows 11 weeks for the necessary legislation to go through parliament and the Electoral Commission to assess the proposed question, one week to get ready, and ten weeks for the campaign. If parliament started this process today, a vote could be held on 26th September. So long as the wheels were set in motion by the European Parliament elections on 23rd May, a referendum could go ahead on 24th October; the last Thursday that gives time for the result to be declared before the deadline.

So the simple answer to the question posed above is, yes, there is time for a referendum by October.

But does pushing for a referendum at breakneck speed still make sense? Back when we were writing our report, the first question everyone asked was whether a vote could be held before Brexit day on 29th March. Once that timetable had become untenable, the question was whether the ballot could be organised by 23rd May or 30th June, so that the UK would not have to participate in the European Parliament elections. If a vote is being contemplated for September or October, that Rubicon will long have been crossed.

Crucially, EU leaders have signalled that the Halloween deadline will not be final if a decision-making process is ongoing by then. In other words, starting the referendum process could itself provide Britain with more time to deliberate. Businesses are desperate for some kind of resolution. But a well-run referendum would produce a more robust outcome. Taking a little extra time to ensure that would be worthwhile.

Continue reading

A Northern Ireland border poll

alan_rialto2-1The prospect of a vote in Northern Ireland on Irish unity – a border poll, as it is often called – is more and more discussed. The Constitution Unit has today published a short report by Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate of the Unit, which aims to set out the key issues, and stimulate discussion. Below, he outlines the main themes of the report.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must by law call a poll if it appears likely that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity. This is a key part of the mechanism by which the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status was resolved in the Good Friday Agreement. A poll in the Republic of Ireland (the South) would also need to be held.

Members of the UK government have recently been talking about this possibility, in pointing up the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. There is no real evidence of a majority at present for Irish unity, indeed no inevitability that it will be found in the future. But from a range of opinion polling results it is clear that nationalism has a spring in its step, and opinion has become more volatile. There is some evidence in the polling that Brexit would indeed tip the scales narrowly to unity. If politics becomes especially brittle, such a change could occur in short order.

If there are votes for unity – both North and South – the consequence according to the Agreement is the negotiation of proposals for a united Ireland – taking in, potentially, almost half the Northern Ireland population who opposed such a move.

The provision in law and the Agreement regarding a border poll is stark and minimal. There was no opportunity in the negotiations in 1998 to develop it further: unity then was a distant prospect. There are hence serious gaps, and ambiguities, in the framework. Continue reading