Political parties and campaigners will need to clearly show who they are when promoting campaign content online, under new measures set out by the UK government.

Why it matters: The proposals, which now enter a consultation period, seek to bring some of the transparency required of political advertising on traditional media, to the mostly unregulated wild west of digital media.

What: Campaign materials will need to carry a “digital imprint” both for fully paid political online advertising, as well as organic digital content that seeks to promote the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates. The imprint would need to be displayed as part of the content or link to the material.

Ultimately, the proposals are designed to enable better monitoring of political spending. There is a secondary intention that these rules will also help to reduce intimidation and make campaigners more accountable for the content they post online.

Specifically, digital content meeting both of the following two tests will require an imprint:

  • where the material is intended to achieve the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates, or the material relates to a referendum;
  • where digital content is promoted by either:
    • registered political parties, registered third-party campaigners, candidates, holders of elected office and registered referendum campaigners - both paid and organic digital content;
    • other campaigners - paid digital content only.

From the horse’s mouth: “People want to engage with politics online”, says Minister for the Constitution & Devolution Chloe Smith in a statement.

“But people want to know who is talking. Voters value transparency, so we must ensure that there are clear rules to help them see who is behind campaign content online.”

This is, of course, slightly rich coming from a minister for the ruling party that renamed its campaign headquarters’ press office factcheckUK during the 2019 general election’s televised debates. The next day, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab argued that “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. Eight months later and here we are. 

The Tories aren’t alone in the use of such tactics, as reports during the election showed all three major English political parties adopting a similarly underhand approach, such as putting out campaign materials in the form of false newspapers.    

What people are saying: While the proposals are welcome, many campaigners note that they are just a starting point.

For many, these proposals are the bare minimum and lack any concrete indication of how enforcement will work. The Electoral Reform Society has called for strong sanctions for rulebreakers, adding that responsibility should not pass on to tech platforms when it comes to determining punishment.

Speaking to the FT, Nigel Gwilliam, director of media affairs at the IPA, pointed out that “In a democracy, political ideas need to be aired and debated in the public square” and that “microtargeting has the potential to subvert this, especially when combined with the absence of fact-checking or any other message regulation”.

Sourced from UK Government, The Guardian, BBC, FT; additional content by WARC staff