Political parties have been challenged to commit to openness in social media advertising ahead of a general election in which online campaigning will play a bigger part than ever before.
And it followed a warning from the European Union that political disinformation is still rife on social networks.
The call for transparency came from a senior member of the House of Commons committee which carried out an in-depth investigation into data-driven political campaigning involving companies like Cambridge Analytica and in February issued a call for tougher regulation of the area to protect democracy.
With just over 40 days to go to the snap 12 December poll, Ian Lucas told The Independent it was too late to implement the legislation recommended by the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
But he called on all parties to protect the integrity of the election by agreeing to post all online campaign material on an open register, so it can be scrutinised and challenged in real time by political rivals and the media.
Meanwhile, the committee’s chair Damian Collins wrote to Facebook spokesperson Nick Clegg demanding a response to an open letter from 250 of the tech giant’s employees warning that its policies allow politicians to “weaponise” the platform.
“Can you commit to implementing the proposals that your staff made in their open letter, in particular to hold political ads to the same standards as other ads, and restricting ad targeting for political ads?” Mr Collins asked the former deputy prime minister.
A poll from YouGov and Grey London found that 63 per cent of social media users have lost trust in platforms and 59 per cent believe political advertising needs to be regulated during campaigns.
“This clearly confirms the need for platforms to actively engage with public authorities,” said Mr Collins.
He raised concerns that the company appeared to be targeting fact-checking efforts at particular politicians, and said that instead of “picking and choosing” candidates it should adopt a general policy for all.
Figures from the Electoral Commission show that parties nationally spent about £1.3m on Facebook – the preferred platform for online political ads – during the 2015 general election campaign, rising to £3.2m two years later. That figure is expected to rise further in the current contest.
But ads distributed on social media are not subject to the same regulation as press and broadcast commercials and do not have to carry an “imprint” so that voters know who is behind the message.
And crucially – as seen in the 2016 EU referendum – digital campaigns are able to direct messages at tightly-defined subgroups of the electorate, targeting them with messages which may not be seen by voters at large or the media.
“Social media will be the main battleground of this election, particularly given the limitations that the time of year will impose on traditional doorstep campaigning,” said Mr Lucas, who spoke out as he stepped down from parliament after 18 years as Labour MP for Wrexham.
He said his concerns were heightened because of the previous role of Boris Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings at the head of the Vote Leave campaign, which devoted around 40 per cent of its spending at the 2016 EU referendum to digital marketing.
“Political parties will be targeting paid advertising at individuals and we won’t be aware of how that is being done and the content of it will be completely unregulated,” said Mr Lucas.
“The broadcasting and advertising regulators don’t exercise any control over online material so you can basically say anything about anyone. There have been various proposals by our committee, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner but the issue has not been dealt with by the government.”
Setting out his proposal for a voluntary system of transparency which could be put in place for this election, Mr Lucas told The Independent: “All political parties need to commit now to all of the advertising they use online being made available on a central register for others to inspect. In the timetable we have, this is the only practical action we can take.
“All reputable parties will want to be honest and open about the advertising they are using, and this would give them an opportunity to show they are being honest. If they refuse to do so, that would mean they were not being honest, they would be dishonest.”
Online ads posted on Facebook during the EU referendum were eventually made public as part of the DCMS committee’s investigation into “fake news”, but this did not happen until two years after the vote took place.
“In the heat of an election battle, you need to know about these things straight away, so claims can be challenged and individual candidates can defend themselves against attack,” said Mr Lucas.
In its report in February, the DCMS committee warned of the danger of “disruption and confusion” at elections caused by the misuse of social media and called for government to “use regulation to restore democratic accountability”.
The Electoral Commission last year issued a range of recommendations to ensure voters can be confident that digital campaigns are following electoral rules.
These included imprints for all campaign material, identifying sums spent on digital campaigns and online databases of political adverts.
There was no immediate response from Conservatives, Labour or Liberal Democrats to The Independent’s request for them to say whether they are ready to meet Mr Lucas’s transparency challenge in the election.
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