Damian Collins MP: Our electoral law is under threat in the digital age

Posted On: 
30th September 2019

Elections are fought online, not through the letterbox. We must act now to combat digital campaigning and safeguard our democracy, writes Damian Collins MP

A protestor holds up a 'Fake News' sign
Credit: 
PA

As we face the prospect of a general election, we need to confront the fact that our electoral law is not fit for purpose in the digital age. Technology has created opportunities for people to campaign without revealing their identity, spend above restricted limits, and receive untraceable donations, including from overseas. We should introduce emergency legislation to put this right and safeguard our democracy.

Social media has become an increasingly important campaigning tool in elections, but the same legal requirements for transparency that exist for literature and posters have not been required in the online world.

Election law mandates that campaign leaflets clearly identify who has paid for them to be produced, and which candidate or party they support. The same regulations do not apply for political adverts on Facebook, and the consequence has been the emergence of shady campaign groups spending large amounts targeting users on the platform. In these cases, it is not possible to see who is ultimately funding these campaigns.

Transparency is a vital tool for voters, as it helps them make judgments about the claims they are presented with during an election. Equally, anonymous campaigns can be used to try to influence voters by swamping social media with messages that are helpful to their cause.

Micro-transactions made online to political parties, through systems like PayPal, can also be used to hide the source of the donations. In America, this is already raising “deep concerns” with the chair of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Ellen Weintraub.

I asked her at the meeting of our International Grand Committee on disinformation, held in Ottawa in May, about the possibilities to launder money into political campaigns using large quantities of untraceable micro-donations. She confirmed that: “On the internet … very small amounts of money can be used to have vast impact, and that doesn’t get into the possibility of bitcoin and other technologies being used to mask where the money is coming from.” She added that the FEC believed around $1bn of untraceable dark money had been spent on election campaigns in the US over the last 10 years.

Unchecked, these problems will only grow as the internet becomes the increasingly dominant platform for election campaigning, and we can see how quickly this has developed over the last eight years.

In 2012, Barack Obama ran the first serious social media political campaign. Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina had met with Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs who told him mobile technology had to be central to the campaign’s effort. As Messina recalled: “He explained viral content and how our stuff could break out.”

On the day of President Obama’s re-election, around 46% of Americans had smartphones, but when Donald Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton four years later, that had risen to 77%. The campaign spend on digital media increased from $159m in 2012 to $1.4bn in 2016.

Over the last year we have all become more aware of the risks democracies face from hostile actors, such as foreign entities like the Russian Internet Research Agency, using social media to spread lies that can damage elections.

The recent deepfake video of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, which was doctored to make her look incapable of doing her job, highlights a new threat to our democratic process: reputations could be destroyed, and it could be impossible to know which statements or speeches to trust. It would be irresponsible to not stop this happening. We need to act now to safeguard our democracy, starting with three necessary reforms.

First, the same campaign transparency laws that apply offline should apply on the internet.

Second, we need to make sure there is traceability in online political donations. I agree with the UK Electoral Commission that we should look at how anti-money laundering regulations could also be applied in politics.

Third, we should classify deepfake films released maliciously during election campaigns as harmful content and require that social media platforms remove them to help prevent their further distribution.

Damian Collins is Conservative MP for Folkestone & Hythe and chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee