Constitutional reformers need to tackle six key questions about the regulation of digital campaigning

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.

Figure 1: Electoral Commission spending return declarations related to advertising and digital advertising 2014-2019
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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 2019 election campaign shows that abuse, harassment and intimidation of candidates is getting worse, especially for women

The 2019 general election saw more women run for (and win) seats in the House of Commons than ever before. However the level of abuse those women received was also higher than ever, and affected them disproportionately compared with men. Sofia Collignon explains what we can learn from the data about the experience of female candidates.

After parliament voted in November 2019 to trigger an election – which took place in December – a record number of women presented themselves for office, as 37% of candidates were female. This is an improvement of eight percentage points over the number of women standing just two years earlier, in 2017 (29%). Perhaps more relevant is that a record number of female candidates actually went on to become MPs (220), comprising 34% of the total number of members of the House of Commons (+5%) and making up a majority of both Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. The increase in the number of women standing for office and winning a seat is undeniable progress for the representation of women in the UK. But this positive scenario becomes more pessimistic if the violence experienced by women in politics is considered.  

Drawing on data from the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) survey of 2019 candidates, this blog post summarises the degree to which women and men candidates suffered harassment and intimidation while campaigning for the 2019 general election in the UK and the nature of the abuse they experienced. It shows that women are distinctly affected by abuse, harassment and intimidation in two ways: the frequency of the abuse and the motivation behind it. 

The frequency of abuse

The analysis of RAB 2019 responses indicates that 49% of candidates reported that they suffered some form of abuse, harassment or intimidation while campaigning. This is an increase of 11 percentage points compared with 2017. The proportion is significantly higher for women (61%) than men (44%). It is particularly worrying to notice that, despite multiple initiatives, the findings of a 2017 inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) and frequent media coverage, harassment against women increased by 16 percentage points, almost twice the increase observed among men (see Figure 1). Not only were more women standing for office, but they were also reporting more acts of intimidation, threats, physical and psychological violence. 

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