Your editorial (Democracy needs transparency in the age of Facebook, 16 May) reflects a perception of election campaigning through social media as an unknown and unregulated field. This is not the case.
Existing legislation may pre-date the campaign methods of today, and there may well be a case for modernising it. But ultimately all regulated spending by political parties is subject to existing limits – and this includes advertising or unsolicited campaign material, whether it is distributed online, via social media or in any other format. The same applies in the rules for non-party campaigners and candidates, and we publish this information on our website for anyone to see.
Targeting is not new for political campaigning; parties and candidates have always focused their efforts on different demographics or swing voters. For decades, certain streets in a constituency may have received one version of a leaflet, with another half a mile away getting a different one. What we are seeing now is an evolution of this, deploying a different medium, albeit with increased scale, speed and specificity.
Some of the concerns around targeted online advertisements arise from fears about the use of people’s data, and this is, of course, an understandable concern. Our specific role, however, is to ensure transparency on where money is being spent to influence voting, rather than to stop campaigning. Indeed, the health of our democracy relies on the ability for candidates, parties and non-party campaigners to engage with voters in ways that voters find accessible.
In 2014, we recommended that the law be changed to require online campaign advertising, like its print equivalent, to include an “imprint” to ensure anyone looking at those adverts or profiles could know who the campaigner is. This was made a legal requirement by the Scottish government for the independence referendum, worked well, and would be a welcome additional requirement for all forms of election and referendum campaigning across the UK in the future