Facebook can influence UK elections – and there’s no way to stop it

The Cambridge Analytica row exposes how political parties can do what they like to influence us online.

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As the Cambridge Analytica scandal has the world debating whether our Facebook feeds influence who we vote for, we’ve missed a key problem far closer to home.

Too often overlooked, our archaic election laws in the UK are currently allowing political parties and their supporters to spend money on Facebook and other social media, unregulated and undeclared.

This means they can pump ads and other content into your newsfeeds and timelines without telling the Electoral Commission precisely how much is being spent on getting their message out there – and without even telling you they’re doing it.

Parties have to declare their campaign expenditure from a year before a general election to the Electoral Commission, which controls whether they’ve spent above the limit.

They have to break down their spending into categories – and there is no specific category for online activity. Any online spending comes mainly under the very vague “Advertising” category. You have to dig deeper into their filings to find out specifically where that money was spent. This tells us that in the 2017 general election, for example, the Conservative Party spent £1,018,161.60 on Facebook advertising and £25,000 on Twitter advertising, while Labour spent £210,194.82 on Facebook advertising and a mere £354.84 on Twitter advertising.

So there’s no real way of logging all online activity propagating a party’s message – non-affiliated Facebook pages, like the big “Jeremy Corbyn for PM” page, for example – and tweets from unofficial Twitter accounts.

Non-party campaign groups like the left-wing pro-Jeremy Corbyn network Momentum do have to cap their spending, but that doesn’t come under the national spend of the party they are supporting.

The situation is so unclear that in February 2016, the Electoral Commission recommended a change in electoral law to Parliament, calling for more detailed reporting breakdowns of party spending, highlighting the need to include “different types of advertising such as online and social media promotion”.

This hasn’t yet been done.

Indeed, the main legislation that controls political parties’ campaign spending is from 2000 (the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act) – long before 2006, when Facebook and Twitter arrived for public use.

Subsequent election laws haven’t laid out how parties are allowed to use social media for campaigning, so our politicians are still bound by rules written at the time of “mini-discs and the millennium bug, with today’s online minefield far from sight”, according to the Electoral Reform Society, which is calling for regulators to confront the “online wild west” of political influence.

“We all know what leafleting is, or buying billboards or party political broadcasts, but I’m not entirely sure what is going on in the online space in terms of influencing, campaigning and mind-changing,” says Willie Sullivan, senior director of the Electoral Reform Society.

“Parties have to say how much they’ve spent, but it’s unclear on online stuff – it might not be a party that’s doing it; it might be an individual, another organisation, you don’t even know who’s paying them, it might be someone overseas,” he adds.

“This technology, and not being able to trace the source of where the information or the news comes from, is fundamentally threatening to democracy.”

Sourcing political advertisements or material you see online is difficult, as parties and non-party campaigners are not required to tell you who has published it, like they are required to do on hard copies of campaign material, like leaflets.

As far back as 2003, the Electoral Commission recommended that online campaign material, like videos and digital pledge cards, etc, should have an “imprint stating who has published it”. Again, this was ignored by Parliament, and 14 years on, this kind of campaigning is far more widespread, and thus confusing – and potentially misleading – for voters.

But does this influence our voting decisions? It seems unlikely that social media has decided election outcomes in the UK yet, but it certainly has an influence in individual constituencies – which are, of course, where elections are won and lost. Influence the correct handful of marginal seats, and you can influence the result.

This is the main area where our election law falls down. Individual candidate spending is very restricted in this country, but answerable to the returning officer of the constituency they stand in – and the police – rather than regulated by the Electoral Commission.

An individual standing is allowed to spend a base of £8,700 on their local campaign, with a 6p or 9p per constituent top-up, depending on the size of the seat. The Tories were fined for exceeding these limits (though were not prosecuted) in their 2015 general election expenses.

But Facebook ads, paid for by national campaigns, can be micro-targeted, and these do not come into a local candidate’s spending. So there’s a digital short-cut to dodge these rules, and it’s not even against election law.

This makes a difference when, for example, you’re a swing voter in the previously marginal seat of Ealing Central and Acton, you see a targeted ad from Labour about west London A&E closures, and decide you’ll give your vote to Labour candidate Rupa Huq.

Following the 2017 election result, I reported on the inside story of Labour’s victories in seats that were considered unwinnable – much of what I found suggested that successful online campaigns by Momentum went a long way in marginal seats (for example, 69.2 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds with a Facebook profile watched at least one Momentum video online in Sheffield Hallam, where Labour unseated the Lib Dems).

There is also the concern of how much money is being spent on online campaigning outside of the regulated period. “People could be spending millions of pounds on online advertising that you would probably never know about,” warns Sullivan.

“We have to remake democracy again and again, because whatever mechanisms or tools you put in to share power out, there are always going to be interests who are going to try and get round that, and concentrate that power.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.