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 power to just say no: Corbyn, Freedom of Information and the Ministerial Veto

image_previewJeremy Corbyn recently used a speech on what a Labour government would seek to change in the media sector to confirm that the party will seek to abolish the ministerial power to veto decisions to release government papers under the Freedom of Information Act. Ben Worthy argues that the idea is neither new, or the best means of increasing transparency.

Vetoes are there in the hope they will not be needed, but their mere existence reassures. In no case is this truer than section 53 of the UK FOI Act,  which allows the government the ultimate power to block requests. Amongst a number of radical proposals in his recent speech on the media, Jeremy Corbyn suggested that he would ‘look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled’, thereby abolishing the government’s FOI veto.

Some sort of veto, or ultimate backstop, is common across many FOI regimes. The US stands as an exception due to the separation of powers (though this didn’t stop President Johnson trying to insert a thoroughly unconstitutional one into the original bill). In some senses, the veto is symbolic for supporters and critics alike, offering a final reassurance or a last line of ultimate secrecy, depending on your point of view.  The idea to abolish it has been around for some time, and the Liberal Democrats promised to do so in their 2017 election manifesto.

In the UK, whether the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) had a veto in it or not was a key sticking point, and an indicator of the shifting radicalism of the policy as it made its turbulent way onto the statute book. The terrifying lack of a veto in the original White Paper sent a shiver through Whitehall (a veto would, it argued, ‘erode public confidence in the Act’). The later draft bill, which emerged after much retreating and agony, had a veto so wide it could be used not only by government ministers but also potentially local councillors. In this form, it was a veto that could be seen, as it were, from Huddersfield. Removed from the White Paper and re-inserted into the draft Bill, the final FOIA gave government a veto to prevent the release of information, even if the appeal system ruled in favour, in situations where the public interest had been weighed and ‘exceptional circumstances’ existed. So far so clear. But there are some complexities that only, perhaps, Corbyn’s proposal would resolve. Continue reading

Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading

Digital Communication and Elections: Online targeting of voters on social media

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In recent elections and in the EU referendum, concerns have been raised about the online targeting of voters on social media and the use of voter data. At a Constitution Unit seminar, Dr Martin Moore spoke about the shifting nature of online campaigning and examined its impact on the regulatory and legal landscape in the UK. In this blog post, Michela Palese summarises what he said.

Election campaigns have shifted significantly online in recent years. This reflects trends in news and media consumption. Nowadays, around 90% of British adults are online and 84% use social media, with approximately 30 million Britons using Facebook on a regular basis. Furthermore, around three quarters of internet users get their news online and four in ten use social media for news. It is therefore unsurprising that campaigning has shifted to the digital world, given the ease with which voters can be reached in a direct and highly personalised way.

Funding has shifted to digital as well. Campaigners admit that digital is where elections can be won and lost, and this is proven by the successful use they have made of social media. For example, Dominic Cummings stated that the Vote Leave campaign spent around 98% of its budget on digital campaigning. Jim Messina, a former political advisor to Barack Obama and founder of consulting firm The Messina Group, claimed that Facebook was ‘the crucial weapon’ in the Conservative Party’s successful general election campaign in 2015. In the last general election, by contrast, the Labour Party invested significant effort in social media advertising, with its videos being viewed by around ten million internet users.  

At a Constitution Unit seminar, Dr Martin Moore, Director of the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication, and Power at King’s College London, argued that the changing nature of campaigning has highlighted some of the shortcomings in the UK’s regulatory and legal landscape. In particular, Moore noted the concerns which have been raised about the lack of fairness and openness in how campaigns are conducted online. Campaigners have, in fact, much more leeway in what they can do in the digital realm than on print or broadcast platforms. In 2017, both the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission opened investigations into how funds were spent during the EU referendum and into the manner in which voters were targeted on social media. Continue reading