Democracy in the Dark: It’s time to regulate digital campaigning

Sam Power, Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Corruption, has recently co-authored a report for the Electoral Reform Society titled ‘Democracy in the Dark: Digital Campaigning in the 2019 General Election and Beyond’ with Dr Katharine Dommett, University of Sheffield. The full report can be found here – an extract from the Executive Summary is below. 

Over the last few years, calls for the regulation of digital campaigning have been growing in the UK. Committees in the House of Commons and Lords, groups of MPs, regulators, think tanks, charities and campaign groups have been stressing the need for urgent electoral reform.  

Yet nearly a year on from the 2019 general election campaign, the only concerted action taken by the government has been to launch a consultation on digital imprints. This change, first recommended by the Electoral Commission back in 2003, is long overdue, but it also only scratches the surface of the problem. And at a time when the Electoral Commission is more important than ever – needing new powers and competencies – we have witnessed growing threats to its future.  

In this report, we look at the case for strengthening – not stymying – democratic oversight by examining what we know about the use of digital technology at the 2019 general election. Posing five questions, we show why there is a need for urgent action that extends far beyond digital imprints.  

Specifically, we ask: 

  • What was being spent? 
  • Who was campaigning? 
  • Who was seeing what? 
  • How was data being used? 
  • What was being said? 

Looking at examples from the 2019 general election, and presenting new analysis of Facebook and Google’s advertising archives, we demonstrate the case for reform. We also review the recommendations from a series of reports and inquiries to outline what has so far been proposed to address these trends. Through this report, we shed fresh light on the need for urgent action and the demand for far-reaching reform. 

You can read the full report and findings here: ‘Democracy in the Dark: digital campaigning in the 2019 General Election and beyond.’ 

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