This stricter plan for online political ads is just one of the changes required to safeguard democracyby Michela Palese and Alan Renwick / August 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
The government has announced plans to require “imprints” on online election materials. That may sound esoteric, but it’s important for the health of democracy. So is this a step in the right direction?
First, some context. Political campaigns, though often infuriating, are vital to democracy. They allow parties and campaigners to communicate directly with voters. They let voters engage in democratic debate. They provide information on the issues and candidates, allowing voters to make an informed choice.
A key component of political campaigns is “election material,” which the law defines as “material which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success at any relevant election”—leaflets, posters, newspaper ads and, increasingly in recent years, social media and other online ads.
Offline, printed election materials have to display an “imprint”—a disclosure stating who is promoting them and has paid for them. This helps voters see who is trying to exert influence. It also assists the Electoral Commission in enforcing the crucial rules on campaign spending.
But imprints are as yet not required for online political ads, even though the Electoral Commission has been calling for them since 2003. As online campaigning has grown in importance—from less than 1 per cent of campaign ad spending a decade ago to somewhere near half today—that has become an increasingly troubling omission. A plethora of politicians, parliamentary committees, regulators, academics and independent organisations have backed the change.
Following a consultation in 2018, the government committed to extending the imprint rules last May, but took no action before the general election. The digital platforms themselves attempted to fill the gap by requiring imprints on political ads on their sites. But this has been piecemeal and opaque. Facebook initially required news outlets, as well as parties and campaigners, to display the “paid for by” disclaimer for ads promoting articles related to politics. In any case, election rules should be decided democratically, not by multinational tech giants.
So last week’s Cabinet Office announcement setting out concrete proposals for digital imprints is very welcome.
The government is proposing to require imprints for all paid-for digital election material and for unpaid (“organic”) material promoted by, or on behalf of, candidates, parties and registered third-party campaigners. Unpaid material published by unregistered campaigners will be excluded—so regular members of the public will be able to go…