Targeted ads in crosshairs amid Lords inquiry into tech's impact on politics

House of Lords committee is gathering evidence about online spending and political campaigning, as well as effect of targeted online advertising.

Social media: algorithms are among several lines of enquiry
Social media: algorithms are among several lines of enquiry

A senior group of peers are investigating the impact of digital technologies on democracy. 

The House of Lords' Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has called for evidence on both the positive and negative impact of tech on elections and political campaigning.

A focus of the inquiry is transparency in online spending and political campaigning, as well as the effect of online advertising being targeted at individuals.

It marks another move by parliament to investigate how social media impacts political debate and trust in democracy, as well as the spread of online misinformation about politics.

Last month, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, comprising a senior group of MPs, accused the government of ignoring its recommendations for political advertising reform. The committee said the UK’s current electoral law is not fit for purpose, while its draft legislation for regulating social media content has "scant focus" on electoral interference and political ads. 

The Lords committee has asked for written evidence by 20 September, with a view to publishing a report.

It is led by David (Lord) Puttnam, a former Collett Dickenson Pearce account executive and Oscar-winning film producer.

The committee’s questions include:

  • How has the design of algorithms used by social media platforms shaped democratic debate? Should there be more accountability for the design of algorithms?
  • What role should education play in helping create a healthy, active and digitally literate democracy?
  • Should there be more transparency in online spending and political campaigning by political parties and other groups? What is the effect of targeted online advertising?
  • Does the increasing use of encrypted messaging and private groups on social media platforms present a challenge to democracy? What are the positive and negative effects of anonymity on online political debate?
  • Are people or organisations deliberately using social media to undermine trust in democracy? How can this be combatted? 
  • What steps can be taken to reduce the impact of misinformation online?
  • How can politicians and political institutions use technology to engage the public with national and local decision-making and enhance democracy? 

Puttnam said: "We have already seen high-profile controversies in recent elections, with allegations of foreign state influence in both the US presidential election and our own Brexit referendum.

"We also know political parties now spend more on online advertising than they do on newspaper ads or billboards. What will be the impact when political advertising can be tailored to each individual citizen, with nobody knowing what parties are saying to other voters?"

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