The rules of the campaign found wanting

The months preceding this election campaign saw publication of a slew of reports from respected organisations – including the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, and the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees – calling for urgent reform of our electoral rules.

Many of the key demands related to campaign regulation. The current rules were enacted in 2000, before online campaigning had gained any significance. There is general agreement on the urgent need to update them. At the very least, as the Electoral Commission has argued since 2003, digital advertising should be required, like print advertising to include an ‘imprint’, showing who has produced and paid for it. Online advertising should also be visible to all, so that misleading, contradictory, or pernicious messages cannot be targeted at particular groups without any opportunity for others to know what is happening. Some have proposed more radical measures: for example, one international think tank called in November for a ban on all personalised political advertising online. Other proposals would improve the transparency of campaign finance, constrain interventions from overseas, and increase the sanctioning powers of the Electoral Commission.

No such reforms were introduced before the election. Theresa May’s government said it would publish proposals for digital imprints, and the first Johnson Queen’s Speech, in October, reaffirmed that commitment. But parliament was dissolved without receiving any such proposals.

How, then, did this creaking regulatory structure perform during the campaign? In one sense, the lack of action from government made little difference, for the large internet companies themselves stepped in. Facebook and Google, for example, required all political advertising to carry an imprint (or ‘disclaimer’) and provided searchable ad libraries. Twitter went further, banning paid political advertising worldwide. Independent fact-checkers and some journalists also contributed to transparency, drawing extensively on the ad libraries to inform voters on what was going on.

For three reasons, however, such interventions proved insufficient. First, it is in principle inappropriate for the rules of political campaigning to be decided by the bosses of multinational companies rather than through democratic processes. This point was acknowledged in October by Facebook’s Richard Allan (a Liberal Democrat peer), who wrote that ‘it’s simply not appropriate for a private company like Facebook to be setting the rules of the game or calling the shots’.

Second, the information provided by the tech giants in their ad libraries is limited. Most notably in the context of an election under First Past the Post, where the overall result is the aggregation of 650 separate contests across the country, those libraries give no information on constituency targeting. The true nature of the campaign on the ground therefore remains opaque.

Third, even if the tech companies introduced exemplary rules, this election illustrated the fact that transparency regulations alone cannot deliver healthy democratic discourse. Misinformation was rampant throughout the campaign, from all sides. Boris Johnson’s core promise to ‘get Brexit done’ by 31 January 2020 was well known to be a gross simplification, while Conservative promises on new hospitals and extra nurses were found wanting by independent fact-checkers. So were Labour’s claims that 95% of people would pay no extra tax under its plans and that the average family would save over £6,000. The Liberal Democrats were criticised most for misleading bar charts and sometimes manifestly false claims about their own electoral prospects. Conservatives, indeed, went further at times than simple misinformation, apparently seeking to undermine sources of independent, impartial analysis: their press office masqueraded on Twitter as a fact-checking organisation during the first leaders’ debate; and they threatened both the BBC and Channel 4 with punitive measures.

While transparency remains important, this experience demonstrates the need for more. There are three other possible approaches, as set out in a report I wrote earlier this year with Michela Palese: first, to ban misinformation; second, to make high-quality information readily accessible; third, to shift our wider political culture.

The first of these in fact operated to some degree during the campaign: for the first time since current legislation was introduced in 1983, a court issued an injunction preventing a party (the SNP) from distributing campaign material that made false claims about another candidate (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson). Yet the provision in question (section 106 of the Representation of the People Act) is very narrowly drawn. Furthermore, for the courts to police truthfulness in policy disputes would be intolerable for free speech.

Only the remaining approaches could possibly succeed. It was striking, therefore, that no party made any mention of them in their manifestos. Those working for richer democracy – including scholars, journalists, independent organisations, and campaigners – still have a major job to do in developing proposals and demonstrating their potential efficacy.