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Online Material: Identification of Promoters

Volume 791: debated on Thursday 7 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure online material, including that in social media, of a political or campaigning nature carries appropriate imprints to inform recipients of its promoter.

My Lords, the Government will begin a consultation this summer that will consider whether to extend the rules on imprints on printed electoral material to online electoral material. The consultation will seek views on introducing an electronic imprint and on how such a requirement could be appropriately framed.

My Lords, the Electoral Commission recommended this reform as long ago as 2003, since when we have had four general elections and a referendum and the secret influence of the hidden persuaders has been ever increasing. Is this not a time for action rather than for yet more consultation? Is it not necessary for the Government to think now in terms of primary legislation so that we can have proper scrutiny in both Houses? For that purpose, may I offer my Private Member’s Bill to the Government in case they do not have time of their own to deal with this very urgent question?

The noble Lord is quite right that this was a recommendation by the Electoral Commission some time ago. During the Scottish referendum these requirements were introduced and the commission said that the rules,

“caused some confusion amongst campaigners and the public”.

The commission recommended further consideration on how to make the imprint requirement on online material proportionate and relevant. That is exactly what we are doing with our proposed consultation. In Scotland there was some debate as to whether Facebook and Twitter exchanges needed the imprint if they related to the referendum.

On the noble Lord’s second point, if we did go ahead it would not require primary legislation; it could be done by statutory instrument. On his third point, I am looking forward to the Committee stage of his Bill, which contains an ambitious programme of electoral reform, not all of which may reach the statute book.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, raises a very important issue. Does the Minister agree that the Question highlights that our laws around elections are woefully out of date and unable to provide the necessary framework, and that we urgently need to review, amend and update the legislation to meet the challenges of the digital world?

Yes, I do agree. The Electoral Commission is currently conducting some inquiries into campaigning irregularities, and the results of those inquiries will be published in the next few months. When we have disposed of current cases before the courts, we will then be in a position to address the important issues raised by the noble Lord.

My Lords, I echo the question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and express my concern about the general state of regulation and legislation, not only in relation to expenses but on a broader range of issues associated with elections. I suggest that when my noble friend considers this broad range of issues, he might consider regulations in relation to bar charts.

I cannot think which political party my noble friend is referring to. On his first point, endorsing what the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, has just said, in June 2017 the Conservative Party made the following statement:

“There is a broad consensus that election law is fragmented, confused and unclear, with two different sets of legislation and poor guidance from the Electoral Commission”.

As I said in response to an earlier question, once we have the information that I referred to we will be in a position to have a dialogue with the Electoral Commission about how changes in electoral law are made.

My Lords, there appears to be some consensus on most of these issues. In the 2017 general election, the Conservative Party spent more than £2 million on Facebook advertising. If targeted at 100 marginal constituencies, it would mean an expenditure of more than £20,000 per constituency—yet only a few hundred pounds ever appeared in the constituency election returns. So is it not clear that, irrespective of any case currently before the courts, we need to revamp our election laws to restore the principle of a level playing field, in the way that Gladstone’s Government did in the 1880s, so that thousands of votes count for far more than thousands of pounds?

On the noble Lord’s first point, he may have seen that Facebook will now require political advertisements to disclose who has paid for them, and such advertisements will be labelled as political. But the consultation I referred to in response to his noble friend directly addresses the issue of what appears on Facebook and other social media and, whether, if it is relevant to an election, there should be the appropriate imprint. So, irrespective of what happens in the review of electoral law, if we make progress on that, it can be done by statutory instruments in advance of any broader change in electoral law.

My Lords, what can be done about instances such as those during recent council elections when I had malicious texts put through my door listed as information for local elections? No one in the area has any idea who did it or knows anything about it, yet it could have been very damaging to the candidate. I wonder whether there is any way of handling that so that people know whether a communication is real or whether the whole thing is simply fake.

I am sorry that my noble friend was distressed by some communications during the recent local government elections, but the Law Commission is reviewing online abusive communication, and analysis of that will be published by the end of the year, with recommendations to follow. There are also other initiatives on online safety, with the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper last year and a White Paper to come later this year. If my noble friend’s communication was on paper and related to the recently held elections, I think that the Electoral Commission would be interested to see a copy of it.

My Lords, it is clear that propaganda from Russia flooded social media during the EU referendum, as it did during the US election. Can my noble friend tell the House how he proposes to put an imprint on that?

That is a challenging question which will be addressed in the forthcoming consultation. On fake news, tackling disinformation is a key pillar of the digital charter. I have seen no evidence of successful intervention in our democratic process, but the Government are not complacent and are engaging with the social media platforms to make further progress.