Voters need to know who is behind the election adverts being targeted at them online - Electoral Commission

Posted On: 
8th October 2018

When an election or referendum adverts pops up on our mobile or computer, we should know who it is from and who is paying to send it, says Tom Hawthorn, Head of Policy at the Electoral Commission.

Election and referendum materials which are printed, must, by law, include details of who produced and paid for them. This is what we call an “imprint”. But the same election or referendum adverts which appear online don’t require this imprint. This means you don’t know who is paying to have an advert appear in your virtual world, says the Electoral Commission.
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Not that long ago, a doormat covered in political leaflets about parties, candidates and their policies was a sure sign that an election was round the corner.

Today, of course, traditional methods of campaigning like letters and knocking on doors are still very much alive, but more and more campaigning has moved online. It’s taking place on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google and many others. Instead of leaflets dropping through your letterbox, we now see adverts appearing alongside your newsfeed, or at the top of your search results.

But there is one big difference between these leaflets and online election adverts – a difference that can keep voters in the dark. We will be telling the UK Government why this inconsistency should change as part of their consultation, “Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence and Information”, which is currently seeking views on proposed changes to electoral law aimed at helping voters to make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Election and referendum materials which are printed, must, by law, include details of who produced and paid for them. This is what we call an “imprint”. It’s a legal requirement, so you know who the leaflet is from and who is paying to send it to you. If the imprint is missing we have the power to, and do, take action. But the same election or referendum adverts which appear online don’t require this imprint. This means you don’t know who is paying to have an advert appear in your virtual world.

In a time where there are concerns about alleged fake news and possible foreign interference, it’s important that voters know who is behind the campaign adverts they see online.

Our figures show that there has been a significant increase this decade in the percentage of advertising spending by campaigners going to digital channels. In 2011, it was less than 1%. For last year’s UK Parliamentary general election it was almost 43%. Our research with the public earlier this year also showed that they were more likely to pay attention to digital campaign material because it was more engaging and interactive.

That’s why the Electoral Commission is calling on the UK Government to urgently change the law so that online materials produced by parties, candidates and campaigners have an imprint stating who has created them.

We’ve been calling for this change for more than 15 years now, and we already advise campaigners to include an online imprint as good practice. Imprints would not only help voters see who is targeting them, but they would also help us enforce the spending rules. That’s because we would have a better idea of who may need to register with us and submit a list of their spending on political campaigning after an election or referendum. These spending rules are vital to helping increase trust, transparency, and confidence in UK elections.

Digital media is constantly changing, so new regulations would need to apply to different formats and media. In other words, rules should be ‘platform-neutral’ rather than tailored to the existing social media channels that we use today. This would help future-proof them for changes in technology. At the same time, any new regulations should ensure that voters expressing their own personal opinions aren’t regulated in the same way as campaigners.

Ultimately the real benefit of online imprints lies with you and me – when an election or referendum adverts pops up on our mobile or computer, we will know who it is from and who is paying to send it. That’s meaningful transparency for voters.