Election watchdogs demand major overhaul of campaign rules amid fears over Brexit vote

Posted On: 
26th June 2018

UK election watchdogs have today demanded a massive overhaul of campaign laws to boost the transparency of electoral ads and crack down on meddling from overseas.

Many of the fears were stoked in the wake of the EU referendum campaign
Credit: 
PA Images

The Electoral Commission has requested an uplift in the maximum fines they can dole out to rule-breakers and better systems to police under-the-radar social media campaigning.

The call comes amid fears of Russian attempts to swing elections worldwide and concerns about secretive data firms appealing to sympathetic voters directly through Facebook.

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Social media campaigning has become a major battlefront for any political effort - but laws have failed to keep up with the changing landscape, leaving a massive gap in electoral transparency.

Many of the fears were stoked in the wake of the EU referendum campaign, with campaigners facing allegations of spending breaches and using secretive online methods.

The Electoral Commission said laws should be changed to ensure all online material produced by political sources have an imprint to show who created them.

It said campaigners should be forced to provide more detailed information about spends online, and urged social media firms to clearly label political material.

The watchdog also demanded more powers to seize evidence during probes, and to boost the £20,000 maximum fine per offence it can impose on those who breach the rules.

It also requested new checks to ensure foreign cash is not being used to influence UK elections and referendums - after fears Russia may have paid for social media ads during the Brexit race.

Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Urgent action must be taken by the UK’s governments to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age.

“Implementing our package of recommendations will significantly increase transparency about who is seeking to influence voters online, and the money spent on this at UK elections and referendums.”

He told the BBC: "What we are seeing is digital campaigning and use of social media exploding in all directions - that is why we think the rules need modernising and clarifying."

The concerns around online transparency exploded in the wake of the EU referendum, during which the official Vote Leave campaign spent a huge quantity of its funds on digital campaigning.

It used Canadian firm AIQ to send out highly-targeted Facebook adverts to swing voters based on data about their personalities. The ads - used by all major campaign groups - go under the radar of the general public.

AIQ has links to the parent company of controversial consultancy, Cambridge Analytica - another firm which used targeted online ads for Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential race and in other votes around the world.

British data watchdogs searched the Cambridge Analytica offices after it was accused of improperly obtaining data about 87 million Facebook users. The company has since shut down. 

Meanwhile, both official campaigns during the EU referendum have been accused of shuffling cash between related campaign organisations, most of which ended up in the hands of digital content producers.

And the unofficial Brexit group Leave.EU was fined £70,000 for failing to report tens of thousands in spending during the campaign and inaccurately reporting some £6m in loans from its founder Arron Banks.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: 'The government is committed to increasing transparency in digital campaigning, in order to maintain a fair and proportionate democratic process, and we will be consulting on proposals for new imprint requirements on electronic campaigning in due course."