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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Social media trumps the election rules again

Those who thought that the recent investigation by the Electoral Commission into how the parties spent and declared their expenditure during the 2015 General Election was the final word on the matter may need to think again.

As the Independent reports things are moving so fast in the world of electoral politics and communications that it impossible for the law to keep up.

The paper outlines how political parties to spend millions of pounds on locally targeted Facebook adverts with national campaign funds. They say that outdated rules mean parties can tailor hyper-local adverts on Facebook as part of a spending “arms race” in marginal seats, despite rules that are supposed to limit spending in individual constituencies. Regulators do not know what adverts are being seen, creating the “potential for abuse on an unprecedented scale”, according to campaigners.

Both the Tories and Labour are believed to be investing heavily in Facebook adverts this time round but it is no use criticising the Electoral Commission despite the fact that this is the second General Election in a row where the Tories have spent heavily on Facebook adverts.

As the paper says, the Electoral Commission do not have the powers they need to deal with this issue and they, themselves are calling for changes to the law, warning that the system has not “caught up with the digital age”:

“This is a real issue, given that it’s predicted we’ll see the highest spend ever for the general election on targeted Facebook ads by major parties,” it said.

One organisation has idenified what needs to be done:

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “The regulations just haven’t caught up with the digital age – partly because of the distinction between local and national spending being hard to define when it comes to social media. Ads can be hyper-local, but also nationally funded.

“Digital is more ‘slippery’ and harder to capture than traditional activities. This is a real issue given that it’s predict we’ll see the highest spend ever for the general election on targeted Facebook ads by major parties.

“Political parties have for a long time harvested data and targeted individual voters. This is now being supplemented by on-line data gathering: email and social media. And parties are also increasingly buying in data, especially on demographics of voters to assist with targeting.

“The issue is how the sheer quantities of information are used – for example, to target messages at very select groups with potentially contradictory information. We just don’t know what the campaigns are telling these groups. That’s a transparency issue.”

Ms Ghose said that spending controls were “there to stop the arms race going too far and elections being bought” and called for a lower cap but also better rules to ensure more clarity between local and national spending. She also argued that ruled needed to be under “constant review as the digital age changes how politics is done”.

Once this General Election is over the Electoral Commission and the new Government need to do some serious thinking as to how they will update the law but also build some flexibility into it so that the appropriate body can amend the rules as things change and new innovations come on line.
Would a change in the law to define "national" help? Only that material which is exactly the same wherever in the realm it is seen or distributed should come within the "national" ambit.

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