News | Published August 13 2020

Government in push for more “transparency” in online political content

The government has said that it wants political material from parties and campaign groups online to have a “digital imprint” which shows spectators where the content has come from as it unveiled new regulations on the issue.

It hopes that the new rules will provide the “same transparency” in online campaigns as is the case in printed posters and leaflets.

The plans will proceed to public consultation having been fully published on Wednesday.

Currently, election leaflets and newspapers must indicate the source of material and who paid for it, but it is not specified as to how prominent this information should be.

Three major UK parties faced criticism during the 2019 general election campaign for allegedly mimicking official letters and local newspapers in their output.

However, recent Electoral Commission statistics have suggested that many political parties and campaign groups are moving toward online advertising, with 42.8 per cent of total spend in 2017 going on such mediums, compared to just three per cent in 2011. However, online political advertising remains largely unregulated and the law does not state that such material must be truthful or factually accurate, nor is it required to indicate who paid for it.

The Conservatives faced accusations of misleading the electorate when it changed its press office Twitter account name to “Fact Check UK” during a leaders' debate ahead of the 2019 general election.

At the time, then party chairman James Cleverly protested that the Twitter handle for the account and its feed remained clearly labelled as “CCHQ Press”.

Outlining the new proposals which were first promised during the Queen’s Speech in 2019, constitutional affairs minister Chloe Smith said: "Voters value transparency. So we must ensure that there are clear rules to help them see who is behind campaign content online."

The “digital imprint” would come in the form of a video or graphic as part of the online material, or should be included in an “accessible alternative location linked to the material” if inclusion in the content itself is “not possible”.

Smith said that the new law will establish "one of the most comprehensive sets of regulations operating in the world today".

Political parties, registered third parties, political candidates, elected office holders and registered referendum campaigners are among those that must include the digital imprint in their material regardless of whether it is organic content or paid-for advertising. Unregistered campaigners will be expected to apply the imprint to paid-for digital content only.

The Electoral Reform Society was one campaign group which criticised existing online regulations and has said that the new plans being announced must “be just the start” of “cleaning up” democracy in the UK.

Its chief executive, Darren Hughes, called for “strong sanctions” for those who contravene the new rules, saying: "For too long, our democracy has been wide open to anonymous 'dark ads', dodgy donors, and foreign interference online. This won't solve all that, but it will help to plug one of the many leaks in HMS Democracy."

The new regulations will cover all content related to political campaigns, regardless of whether it was produced in the UK or abroad, and the rules will constantly be in effect, rather than being isolated to election campaigns and the run-up to referendums.

The government has said that with the new laws, the Electoral Commission will be able to “better monitor who is promoting election material and enforce the spending rules”.

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Authored by

Alexander Bridge-Wilkinson
Junior Editor
August 13 2020

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