Dr Kate Dommett
Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on digital campaigning, political parties, data use and public perceptions. She is currently serving as Special Advisor to the House of Lords Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology
Dr Sam Power
Lecturer at the University of Sussex. His research focuses on (offline and online) campaign financing and political parties. His monograph Party Funding and Corruption is forthcoming in early 2020 with Palgrave MacMillan.
Section 6: The Digital Campaign
- Did the Conservatives embrace social media in 2019?
- #GE2019 – Labour owns the Tories on Instagram, the latest digital battlefield
- Spot the difference: how Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson self-represented on Twitter
- “Go back to your student politics”? Momentum, the digital campaign, and what comes next
- Taking the tube
- The politics of deletion in social media campaigns
- “Behind the curtain of the targeting machine”: political parties A/B testing in action
- Against opacity, outrage and deception in digital political campaigning
- The explosion of the public sphere
- Big chickens, dumbfakes, squirrel killers: was 2019 the election where ‘shitposing’ went mainstream?
This General Election has shown digital campaigning to be the ‘wild west’ of politics, revealing the extent to which electoral law has not adapted. Looking at transparency and veracity, we discuss the need for urgent change.
Transparency: Who is Campaigning Online?
Transparency is a key principle of electoral law, the Electoral Commission argue that voters should be able to understand ‘who is behind the campaign and who created it’. However, at the moment, there are no rules compelling political actors to disclose who they are online. Whilst offline campaigners need to include ‘imprints’ on campaigning material, online you are not required to declare who you are.
Although campaigners’ identity can remain unclear in the offline world, the high costs of campaigning mean that few actors get involved and they are often relatively easily identified. However, online a diverse range of individuals can get involved with relatively little effort (and money), resulting in a more crowded and unfamiliar campaigning landscape. The only official information provided about these actors comes from a requirement for parties and ‘non-party’ campaigners to register with the Electoral Commission if they plan to spend over £20,000 in England and £10,000 in the rest of the UK.
Looking at the most recent records, we can see that these thresholds mean only a small number of actors register. Indeed, just 69 groups or individuals are on the Commission’s register of ‘non-party’ campaigners. Whilst providing data about some actors such as ‘We Own It’ and ‘3rd Party Ltd’, this fails to capture the range of groups revealed as active through Facebook’s advertising archive. This (somewhat unreliable) resource, has shown the rise of third party campaigners, but we have little information about who these actors are, whether campaigns are co-ordinated, or where funding comes from.
If voters ought to be able to know ‘who is behind the campaign and who created it’ then there is an urgent need to visit the information collected and disclosed about those active in campaigns. This should involve introducing digital imprints, reducing spending thresholds for Electoral Commission registration, and encouraging reliable industry-led transparency initiatives.
In addition to highlighting the need to update existing electoral regulations, the General Election has also shown the need to consider the case for new regulation, particularly around ensuring veracity. A desire for truth – and a perception that politicians might not hold that same desire – at elections is clearly not new. The rise in digital campaigning has shone a further light on misinformation and the need to consider what regulation in this area might look like.
Parties across the spectrum have been accused of spreading false information online and offline, from the Conservative Party’s doctoring of interview footage, to Liberal Democrat barcharts and Labour photoshopping, parties (and others) have been accused of issuing false information. Whilst being creative with the truth is not a new political development, at this election online technology has been used to further promote these ends…
From a regulatory perspective, these examples fall outside the purview of existing oversight. At present, the content of online material is not subject to regulatory scrutiny, although there is some precedent for factual claims to be checked in advertising. Companies, have also shied away from regulating political content, with Mark Zuckerberg deciding to promote ‘free expression’. There is also evidence that platform algorithms can promote provocative or untrue content due to the engagement it promotes.
The debate over whether and how to promote political veracity brings a new dimension to calls for increased digital regulation. Whilst it is by no means simple for regulators to become arbiters of political truth, at present power is being given to companies to determine what it is that voters do or do not see. This raises questions about whether we want to contract out fundamental democratic principles to third parties and companies who have unclear (or contradictory) conceptions of a ‘good’ society.
Whilst it may therefore be challenging, this election illustrates the case for pursuing regulation of content or, at the least, providing frameworks and guidance for how campaigners, platforms and actors are able to promote this material to voters. This could involve compelling platforms to provide balanced coverage, pursuing algorithmic transparency and implementing protocols to prevent extreme and reactionary material being promoted on platforms.
The General Election has shown that electoral oversight principles are not being upheld online, and that there may be a case for new regulations. It remains to be seen, however, whether politicians will act on these most recent concerns and implement new legislation of the form we urgently need.