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Is democracy under threat from online political advertising?

Is democracy under threat from online political advertising?

Guinevere Poncia | Dods Monitoring

3 min read

Electoral law in the UK has struggled to adapt to the pace and scale of changes in digital communications. With a potential snap election on the horizon, Dods Monitoring's Guinevere Poncia considers the challenges presented by online political campaigning.


State of play

As the importance of the digital space in political campaigning has grown, so has concern over the impact it will have on British democracy. The internet was once heralded as a tool to democratise politics through the mass engagement of voters. However, it is increasingly the case that online platforms can open the door to widespread disinformation, fake news, and voter manipulation. This is no better illustrated than by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which showed how effective data mining and strategic online communications could be at manipulating the electoral process.

The Electoral Commission have welcomed the “positive value of online communications” in underpinning electoral participation but cautioned in 2018 that insufficient action by social media companies to implement transparency in political advertising would result in direct regulation.

What does the regulatory landscape look like?

There remains no single body responsible for the challenges presented by online political advertising. Meaning that, for the moment, continued coordination between Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission remains crucial. In the past, it has been largely left up to online companies to self-regulate. However, criticisms have been levelled at the failure of companies to control both disinformation and voter manipulation through targeted political advertising on their platforms.

The Online Harms White Paper, published in April, signified a shift away from this approach, and has set the course for regulating online technology giants largely responsible for hosting political content. Specific measures and implementation timeline are, as of yet, unclear, but one might expect legislation to be presented in the next Parliamentary session, time allowing. The White Paper was also the first step to creating one regulator for the digital sphere, consolidating the production of high-quality, but sporadic regulatory guidance across the sector.

Alongside this, the Government has committed to a political imprint regime. Imprints indicate who produced and paid for advertised content, making it clearer to the public who is targeting them in a political advert. The move seeks to bring digital campaigning in line with printed election material, which currently requires an imprint from candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners. Whilst it is also yet to be seen how such changes will be implemented, technical proposals are expected later this year.

What are the challenges?

Under the leadership of Damian Collins, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has led the charge in the Commons on the need to reform electoral law to suit the age of digital campaigning for well over two years. Central to these efforts was an in-depth inquiry into….

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