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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Time to rein in online campaigns, says ERS

The Electoral Reform Society has welcomed the report of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee inquiry into “fake news and disinformation” but has warned that unless the report is followed up by urgent action “the integrity of our political system” is itself in jeopardy.

ERS director of policy and research Dr Jess Garland described the findings of the Parliamentary report as “a wake-up call for the government to update Britain’s broken campaign rules,” adding that “the challenges facing our democracy are bigger than Brexit or one election: this is about the integrity of our political system.”

She said: “The DCMS report echoes many of the calls we made in our report ‘Reining in the Wild West: Campaign rules for the 21st Century’, including giving regulators greater enforcement powers and increasing transparency online. Since the DCMS committee’s interim report last year, the government has responded with only a limited consultation on imprints. While political ad transparency must be enshrined in law, these issues cut much deeper and necessitate a comprehensive review of campaign law.

“Online political campaigning has the potential to increase citizens’ participation in our political processes, but our rules and laws need to be sufficiently robust to protect our democracy from the threats it also poses. This issue goes beyond Facebook and Twitter. Rather than waiting for tech giants to self-regulate, Ministers must take responsibility and act on the clear warnings. If they don’t, there is a real risk that future elections could be undermined by foreign interference and dodgy donations. The time to act is now.”

The ERS report ‘Reining in the Wild West’ had brought together regulators, academics and campaigners for the first time to demand comprehensive campaign reform and included six key recommendations:

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement – where materials must show who produced them and on whose behalf they had been produced – to online political advertising.
  2. Improving how campaigners report funding and spending, including separate reporting for social media spend, and digital reporting of spend/donations.
  3. The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
  4. Giving the regulators greater enforcement powers, strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.
  5. Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  6. It is time for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age.

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