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Political party flyers in 2015 general election

MPs demand action to thwart online electoral interference

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The Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) committee has accused the government of failing to act with appropriate urgency to introduce laws to prevent online electoral interference.

In February 2019, the DCMS committee published a report which warned that self-regulation has failed and that social media platforms behave like “digital gangsters” who should be forced to comply with a code of ethics to tackle illegal, manipulative and harmful content (including state-backed disinformation distributed with the intent to mislead voters).

The committee recommended that new legislation should be introduced within six months – including a transparent record of spending on political campaigns – and demanded a veto for the appointment of the head of a new regulator responsible for holding the companies to account.

The report was compiled after an extraordinary inquiry, which involved banding together with legislators from eight other countries to form the “International Grand Committee on Disinformation” and seizing hundreds of pages of confidential internal Facebook documents, revealing questionable business practices endorsed by the most senior figures in the company.

Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who chairs the committee, warned at the time that: “Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day. Much of this is directed from agencies working in foreign countries, including Russia.”

In April, the government published a white paper on online harms, taking on findings from the DCMS inquiry and a science and technology committee inquiry. While the paper was welcomed for proposing regulations to protect people – particularly young people – from violent and hateful material online, it contained minimal detail on halting electoral interference and dark political advertising. This omission was criticised by the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, and deputy Labour leader Tom Watson.

Now, MPs on the committee have expressed disappointment at the lack of action taken by government to combat online harms, particularly with regard to online harms which spread falsehoods and undermine democracy.

“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,” said Collins, in a statement. “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.”

The government responded in a statement, saying that: “The government agrees we need robust safeguards against hostile states, foreign lobbyists and shadowy third parties in place for the digital age. We have already pledged to publish a consultation paper on electoral integrity – it is an important convention that the laws affecting political parties should not be changed by governments without proper consultation and discussions with political parties.”

“Through our world-leading white paper we are bringing in new laws and a duty of care on online platforms to protect users from harm, tackle disinformation and empower people to make informed decisions about online content.”

Concerns about lack of transparency in online political advertising have intensified since the 2016 EU referendum. In July 2018, Vote Leave was fined £61,000 and referred to the police for breaking electoral spending laws, while this year Leave.EU was fined £120,000 over breaches in data law and found to have faked an anti-immigration campaign video and staged photographs of immigrants appearing to behave violently. Last month, a group of MPs began a legal bid to challenge police over delays into the investigation of the Leave campaigns.

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