Dr Kate Dommett (University of Sheffield), and Dr Sam Power (University of Sussex) are the authors of Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond.
Only now are we beginning to get the real picture of what campaign spending looked like in the 2019 election. Our new analysis shows that the £19.5 million the Conservatives raised in this period is greater than the sum total of reported donations to all political parties in 2017 during the same pre-poll period (that stood at nearly £18.7 million).
Where did it go? The official spending returns aren’t yet out. But we can catch glimpses through social media giants’ ad archives.
Digital campaigning is a big business. We estimate that spending on social media platforms increased by over 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2017. Of this, the three main UK-wide parties spent around £6 million on Facebook and just under £3 million on Google.
While Facebook was used by all three national parties to a relatively equal extent, the Conservatives invested dramatically more in Google (which includes YouTube). The advertising archives suggest the party spent £1,765,500, dwarfing the combined spend of £873,300 made by Labour and the Liberal Democrat accounts on this platform.
Yet despite these large numbers, online spend by parties made up only a fraction of the total political ad spend overall. Why? Because we are seeing the rise of the ‘outrider’. These so-called ‘non-party campaigns’ often spring up in and around elections – with the public in the dark about how they are funded, and by who. In 2010 there were 18 of these bodies registered with the Electoral Commission; by 2015 that number had nearly doubled to 30, and last year the figure had doubled again to 64.
While digital campaigning has huge, positive potential to reach out to voters, there is much we don’t know about who is behind online content. This has led to urgent calls for change.
Many of you will be familiar with the practice of putting ‘imprints’ on printed campaign materials. Bizarrely, 15 years after the launch of Facebook in the UK, there’s still no such rule for online material meaning the provenance of these ‘outriders’ is often not widely known.
In this transparency vacuum, social media giants’ have set up their own online ad archives, allowing us a glimpse of the scale of campaigning. But anyone who has used them will know they are insufficient, error-riddled, and often too vague to be useful. Often, we just don’t know who’s targeting us online.
Analysis presented in the report coded data from Facebook to identify 88 UK organisations as non-party campaign groups active during the 2019 election. These groups placed 13,197 adverts at a calculated cost of £2,711,452. Facebook knows who they targeted and why, but they provide only limited information about this in the archive. This makes it impossible to know what exactly is happening, and suggests a need for more transparency.
Whilst the government has rightly pledged to implement online imprints, this remains out for consultation. Whatever the result, it only scratches the surface. We have revisited the many inquiries that have been explored the issue of digital campaigning to highlight a number of simple and proportionate recommendations to protect a free and transparent debate, around which there is broad and cross-party consensus.
The need for online imprints – and soon – is clear. However, currently donations under £500 are not classed as such, meaning foreign actors could split up donations into smaller amounts to shift our political debate. Companies funding political interventions only have to generate a nominal amount of income in the UK. A simple change in law could clarify that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Given concerns about Russian interference, this kind of enshrined principle is vital.
Many of the recommendations in this report echo existing calls to modernise electoral law to help rebuild trust in our democratic system. It’s why the report has been backed by Cheryl Gillan. As she notes, we need honest conversations about the need for “more transparency in the money spent on campaigning in the electoral process, particularly in the light of the rapidly developing digital world”. Despite the huge growth of online ads, what was spent on digital campaigning is far from clear.
“We must continue to examine how we can ensure we have free and fair elections and what changes are necessary to our laws as technology continues to advance,” Dame Cheryl writes.
We cannot leave our electoral integrity in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley giants. Unfortunately, recent years have seen parties and campaigners become even more cautious about disclosing information about their campaign activities online.
Maintaining transparency needs an independent regulator, which is why we are concerned by threats to abolish the Electoral Commission if it cannot be ‘radically overhauled’. The ICO has major clout to investigate alleged wrongdoing when it comes to our data. We must give the same – if not more – gravity to our free elections.
With elections due to take place across the UK in May 2021, we cannot let the urgent task of ensuring our electoral integrity be kicked into the long grass once more, or set-backwards through the rash dismantling of our watchdog.
At present, it is exceedingly difficult if not impossible to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy: of openness, transparency, and public trust. Digital campaigning has the potential to be hugely positive – provided we don’t let secrecy rule the day.