Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

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The government’s electoral reform agenda: an assessment

alan.jfif (1)The Johnson government is committed to maintaining the core element of the electoral system – First Past the Post. But it has indicated its intention to pursue a range of other reforms. In this post, Alan Renwick assesses its agenda. Most urgent is the need to update campaign rules to reflect the digital age – but the strength of the government’s will to act here remains unclear, and recent steps that could undermine media independence are worrying. Other proposals are mixed, but some have the potential to strengthen the system.

Boris Johnson’s government has indicated plans to reform four aspects of the electoral system: (1) who can vote; (2) the process of voting; (3) how constituency boundaries are set; and (4) the campaign rules. This agenda excludes the core of the system: the principle of First Past the Post. But that is unsurprising: as I examined in a book published in 2011, political parties rarely change the electoral rules that empower them; there is no reason to expect an exception in current circumstances.

This post examines each of the four areas of proposed action. The third and fourth areas deserve most attention: valuable reform of boundary setting is possible; and strengthened rules around digital campaigning are urgently needed. Whether the government will focus on what matters remains to be seen.

Who can vote

The Conservative manifesto said two things about the franchise: the voting age will not be reduced to 16, as has happened for local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and as Labour promised in its manifesto; but voting rights will be extended to all British citizens living abroad, eliminating the current 15-year limit.

I have set out the case for votes at 16 in a previous post, and will not rehearse the arguments here. Enfranchising expats, meanwhile, is unlikely to cause much controversy. Yet it appears to be a relatively low government priority: the December Queen’s Speech said merely that the relevant measures would ‘be brought forward in due course’. Commitments to so-called ‘votes for life’ appeared in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos too, but no progress followed.

The process of voting

The government wants to reform the voting process for two reasons: to improve accessibility for people with disabilities; and to tackle electoral fraud.

The first of these is uncontroversial. Though it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the December Queen’s Speech (repeating commitments in the Queen’s Speech in October) set out proposals that reflect recommendations made by the Electoral Commission last May. Continue reading

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading