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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Call to reform election rules

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is calling for an urgent review of political campaign regulation in the UK in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The ERS has written to leaders of Britain’s main political parties calling for cross-party talks on how the UK’s campaign regulations can be updated to “finally come to terms with the digital age in the wake of these revelations.”

Democracy campaigners are also urging the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner to set out what powers and resources they need to monitor the online campaigning landscape, which the ERS describe as a “wild west”.

The main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (public in 2006) or Twitter (2006) even existed, and long before they had any role in political campaigns.

The campaigners note that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – the main Act of Parliament covering election law – was written in a time of ‘mini-discs and the millennium bug, with today’s online minefield far from sight’.

Harvesting data

Social media giants and the politicians have both been “asleep at the wheel” while companies harvest citizens’ personal information for political and financial ends. Regulators may need to be given more powers and resources, and citizens more rights to see what is being done with their data in real time.

Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Online campaigning is the 21st century’s wild west – and the Cambridge Analytica saga is a very stark reminder that we have to assess how to govern the new terrain. That’s why we have written to party leaders today, and are urging regulators to set out what powers and resources they need in this fraught landscape.  

“The rules on campaigning simply haven’t caught up with the digital age. Parties and campaigns are able to collect huge quantities of personal information with little oversight. Our main act covering election law was written in a time of mini-discs and the millennium bug, with today’s online minefield far from sight. Clearly it is time for an urgent review of this legislation to bring it up to date.”

He added: “Information can change how people think and behave and is often the basis on which people vote: if you can control information and know in detail how it affects people’s behaviour, you can influence our democracy. So, we must make sure the regulators can do their jobs properly, to monitor what is going on, and that citizens can see what campaigners are doing with their data.

“Data harvesting and campaign targeting is not new – but the difference now is that it can be done much more extensively and stealthily than in the past. We know what newspapers print, and we can all see the billboards parties put up. It is harder to know who is being targeted online, how they are being targeted, and who is behind it.