Tom Brake MP has secured the leave of the House for an emergency debate on security of elections and referendums. This has followed continued coverage of the use of personal data by Cambridge Analytica for political campaigning, and allegations of breaches of rules on referendum spending limits during the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The Cambridge Analytica case relates to data protection and possible illegal use of personal data. It has at the same time raised concerns about transparency in electoral campaigning.Jump to full report >>
Political campaigners have always relied on sources of information for targeting their resources, these may be from mailing lists and canvassing returns. In a modern era of digital campaigning this also includes targeting of social media campaigns based on user information.
This is a legitimate tool for a political party campaigning in elections or a referendum participant. The concern is that this is becoming less transparent.
The Information Commission’s Office has produced guidance for political parties and MPs (who are data controllers in their own right) on political campaigning. It states that:
Even before the current controversy relating to Cambridge Analytica, the Information Commissioner was investigating the use of data analytics for political purposes. Details of the investigation are available from its website.
The Electoral Commission is currently also investigating digital campaigning – the use of data held by parties, campaigners and social media companies for targeting, how political ads are used on social media, and the use of bots – in the light of the Commission’s experience in general elections and the EU referendum. The Electoral Commission’s investigation has a particular focus on campaign finance.
The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is critical. It points out, “the main legislation regulating political parties’ campaigning activity and finance dates back to 2000 – before Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006) existed, let alone had any role in political campaigns.”
The ERS also points out that the Electoral Commission has just announced investigations into the main political parties in relation to financial reporting during the 2017 General Election. It says that “if the main political parties can’t even get the basic accounting bit right, how on earth can the Electoral Commission keep track of all this additional more opaque activity?”
This briefing gives a brief overview of campaign regulation and some of the issues relating to campaiging in the digital era.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-8272
Authors: Neil Johnston; John Woodhouse