Jess Garland: Here's why UK election rules are a cheaters' charter

Political adverts on Facebook and other social media are a Wild West that allows foreign states and unscrupulous companies to undermine elections while maintaining almost total anonymity, but the world's democracies are finally waking up to the threat, says Jess Garland, director of policy and research at the Electoral Reform Society.

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Facebook and other forms of social media have been used by foreign countries to secretly disrupt democracyFacebook and other forms of social media have been used by foreign countries to secretly disrupt democracy
Facebook and other forms of social media have been used by foreign countries to secretly disrupt democracy

Another vote is never far away. But even outside of election time, campaigning rumbles on.

Each day, a lot of cash is spent influencing political debate. These days though, that’s not just people delivering leaflets and buying billboard space, it’s organisations and individuals targeting potentially millions of people on Facebook, Twitter, Google and everywhere else online.

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At the weekend, we learnt that an anonymous website was behind a £250,000 pro-Brexit advertising campaign urging voters to “bin Chequers”. We have no idea who is behind it.

It’s fair to say people wouldn’t spend these sums if they didn’t think it was working. And they are probably right. A new University of Warwick study has found that Facebook ads do influence large groups of voters – and played an important role in the 2016 US presidential election, helping to elect Donald Trump.

The authors state: “Our results show that social media effectively empowered politicians to influence key groups of voters in electoral races, and it is further evidence that recent political outcomes, such as Brexit and the election of President Trump, might be largely due to the use of data analytics.”

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This stuff matters, yet at present, there is little to stop foreign states or unscrupulous companies pumping millions into online ads to disrupt our democratic processes – with almost total anonymity.

In the wake of concerns over disinformation and foreign states intervening in our debate, calls have been growing for an overhaul of campaign rules.

That includes from our own Electoral Commission, which is warning that democracy is under threat without change to the law. At present, offline political materials have to say who is pushing them. That’s not the case for online ads and this leaves a gaping loophole in our laws.

And Facebook’s move still leaves the rest of the internet open to abuse. The current legislation was designed for an analogue age and we now need to bring our campaign rules into the 21st century to deal with the many threats our democracy faces,

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When it comes to the rules which govern elections, the fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public has faith in the democratic process. While tech firms are bowing to pressure, without regulation across the board, online campaigning remains a Wild West.

MPs have accused the Government of dithering on this but there are simple changes ministers can make quickly that would help make our democracy safer, as the Electoral Commission pointed out.

The current rules are a cheater’s charter. But with governments across the world waking up to this threat, the solutions are there. Let’s get on with it.

Jess Garland is the Electoral Reform Society’s director of policy and research. Sign the ERS petition to close the ‘dark ads’ loophole