Watchdog demands crackdown on digital campaigning after Brexit referendum ‘scandals’

A crackdown on political campaigning online has been demanded by the elections watchdog today, following the alleged scandals during the Brexit referendum.

Theresa May is urged to stamp out anonymous “dark advertising” and the misuse of personal data and to introduce tougher laws to prevent campaigners breaching spending limits.

Much bigger fines are also badly needed to punish offenders and make political campaigning “fit for purpose in a digital age”, the Electoral Commission said.

The call comes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the Facebook data of millions of voters was secretly harvested in order to target them with political advertising.

The Nigel Farage-led Leave.EU campaign “benefited from” that work, according to the head of a Commons committee investigating the affair.

Arron Banks, who bankrolled Leave.EU, also met Russia’s ambassador to the UK three times in 2015 and 2016 and discussed investing in a Siberian goldmine deal.

Meanwhile, the official Vote Leave campaign is alleged to have bust the campaign spending limit, potentially allowing it to precisely target enough voters to have swayed the Brexit result.

Sir John Holmes, the Commission’s chairman, said: “Urgent action must be taken by the UK government to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age.

“Implementing our package of recommendations will significantly increase transparency about who is seeking to influence voters online, and the money spent on this at UK elections and referendums.”

The Commission has put forward a four-point plan, which would:

  • Introduce clear labelling of all online adverts by parties, candidates and campaigners to make clear “who has created them”
  • Require campaigners to provide “detailed information about how money has been spent on digital campaigns”
  • Require social media companies to “label each UK election and referendum advert to make the source clear” and “deliver their proposals for online databases of political adverts”
  • Deliver a “significant increase” to the maximum fine for breaching electoral laws in the digital era – it is currently just £20,000 for each offence

The Commission said its recommendations flowed from “concerns about recent allegations of misinformation, misuse of personal data, and overseas interference”.

Last month, the watchdog fined Leave.EU a record £70,000 and referred its chief executive to police over spending during the EU referendum campaign.

The group failed to include £77,380 in its spending returns, taking it 10 per cent over the limit for non-party registered groups, its investigation found.

The Commission said the actual overspend figure “may well have been considerably higher”, adding that the group had presented “incomplete and inaccurate” information. 

A separate probe into spending by the official Leave campaign, Vote Leave, is continuing.

The Commission has also urged social media companies to put in place new controls to check that people or organisations placing political adverts are legally permitted to do so.

Sir John added: “Social media companies must play their part in transforming the transparency of digital political advertising.

“If voluntary action by social media companies is insufficient, the UK’s governments should consider direct regulation.”

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