MPs accuse government of ignoring political advertising reform

DCMS committee claims government is failing to bring in laws to tackle misinformation and political ad fraud.

Russian misinformation: EU referendum and 2016 US president election were targets
Russian misinformation: EU referendum and 2016 US president election were targets

Senior MPs are calling on the government to introduce new legislation within six months to protect against foreign influence and fraud in political advertising.

The Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee described the UK’s current electoral law as "not fit for purpose" and accused the government of ignoring its recommendations for tackling disinformation and fake news.

The committee’s report, published this morning, said the government's Online Harms White Paper – its draft legislation outlining into regulating social media content – has "scant focus" on electoral interference and online political advertising.

Foreign interference in elections is a major concern following revelations that Russian state-backed actors bought targeted Facebook ads to support Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In the same year, during the Brexit referendum, 156,252 Russian accounts tweeted about #Brexit and posted "over 45,000 Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign", according to the committee.

The DCMS committee, which independently oversees the department, says the government should follow its recommendation to introduce a category for digital spending on political advertising campaigns and that information about all political ad material should be searchable in a public repository.

This public register could, for example, mirror Facebook, which launched a register of political advertisers in October 2018 and now demands that people verify their identify when trying to buy ad space for political campaigns on its platform.

"Were an election or referendum to take place later this year, campaigns would be fought using electoral law that is wholly inadequate for the digital age," today’s report says.

The white paper, published in April by the DCMS and Home Office, calls for an independent watchdog and a code of practice that tech companies would have to follow. Sites could be fined if they fail to adequately tackle online harm, while the draft law also suggests widening Ofcom's remit to include social media content in addition to broadcasting. 

The MPs are also calling for the government to give the DCMS committee a statutory veto over the appointment and dismissal of the chief executive of the new regulatory body. This would ensure the regulator would remain independent from government and therefore demonstrate impartiality and integrity, the committee said. 

The committee wants the government to respond to its proposals by the end of July.

Damien Collins, chair of the committee, said: "We’re calling on the government to bring in urgent legislation before the end of the year to protect our democracy against online electoral interference.

"We know that our electoral laws are not fit for purpose. Political campaigns are fought online, not through the letterbox, and our laws need to be brought up to date with the digital age. We’ve repeatedly highlighted threats to our electoral system and it’s essential that public confidence is restored."

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