Digital Political Advertising

Electoral Commission Committee – in the House of Commons on 28th April 2022.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

To ask the hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, what assessment the commission has made of the impact of digital political advertising on free and fair elections.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

Digital advertising offers significant opportunities for campaigners to engage voters, and it accounts for an increasingly large proportion of election campaign spending. However, research conducted by the Electoral Commission shows that many voters have concerns about the transparency and truthfulness of digital political advertising. The commission runs a campaign to support voters to understand who is using online advertising to influence their vote, and provides educational materials to promote political literacy. It has also made recommendations to the UK’s Governments, social media companies and campaigners to strengthen transparency for voters.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

Digital political advertising in general is largely unregulated. This allows for the proliferation of misleading adverts and leaves us open to the influence of foreign actors, and all of us across the House should be concerned about that. Has the Electoral Commission made any specific recommendations to the Government as to how new regulation should be introduced to ensure that we protect our democracy?

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

The commission recognises that many social media companies have taken welcome steps towards increasing transparency around online campaigning, but it also believes that more can be done to deliver the transparency that voters expect. It has recommended that social media companies should publish information about referendum or election adverts on their platforms with standardised data about costs and targeting. It has welcomed the provisions on digital imprints in the UK Government’s Elections Bill, and it will continue to build on its good working relations with the social media companies to ensure compliance with these measures.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In Scotland before the Scottish parliamentary elections we saw a number of campaign groups spring up using digital advertising to peddle political messages that used unincorporated association structures to hide the source of their finances. Has the Electoral Commission considered investigating the use of unincorporated associations to evade final transparency in politics?

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

The commission is well aware of this issue, but in the recent Elections Bill the Government did not propose any change in the statutory framework under which the commission operates. There is an issue over people and organisations that are not registered as political actors putting out social media posts, because the current digital imprints provisions seemingly do not apply to them. That is an issue that the commission is aware of.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

I declare an interest, in that my wife is a local authority member—and what a good job she does! I have to say that.

A constituent recently brought to my attention some Facebook advertising by my local Conservative Association encouraging people to report potholes and other street affairs through the association. I have no problem with issues like that being raised, but I do not understand why the association could not just direct people to the council website where there is an online reporting facility. Will my hon. Friend look into the reasons why that arrangement exists?

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Labour, City of Chester

I shall also declare an interest: my hon. Friend is my constituency next-door neighbour, and I also know his wife, who is a councillor, although neutrality restricts me from saying what an excellent councillor she is. In answer to his question, if the advertising is legal under the current framework, there would be no reason for the commission to have a concern over it.