General election 2017: Foreign interference can’t be stopped, says Electoral Commission

The Electoral Commission has no power to stop overseas individuals or governments using social media to influence British elections, it says.  Chief executive Claire Bassett says it has “very clear rules” governing the permissibility of donations and printed materials, such as campaign leaflets.  But if the source is outside UK borders,

it’s not something we can cover within our regulation,

she says.

This is something we’re struggling with – that it’s a worldwide web.

Ms Bassett spoke out after an Observer investigation by Carole Cadwalladr suggested there were links between data analytics firms, a US billionaire and the Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum. She said that while there are rules for how much money can be spent on online or print media during elections, the Electoral Commission still needs “to keep up” with the use of fast-moving social media.

At the moment the rules apply to print media – so if you get a leaflet through your door, that should have an imprint on it which makes it clear who’s produced that leaflet and where it’s come from so you know who’s campaigning for your vote,

she said.

At the moment those rules don’t extend to social media and we’ve recommended that that should happen.

But quizzed about how far the electoral watchdog could go to prevent individuals or governments attempting to influence British elections via data analytic companies which target voters, Ms Bassett said:

If something is happening outside of the borders of this country and is not part of any of the regime we’re responsible for, it’s not something we can cover within our regulation.

She said the watchdog had no evidence of widespread activity of this kind but that if such evidence emerged, it would be monitored closely.

She said the commission monitored activity on social media, with people reporting abuses, which was “very useful”, with the watchdog able to “issue stop notices” where appropriate.  But asked if there was anything it could do to stop overseas influences, she replied: “Not really, no.”

The Electoral Commission found that the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook campaigns during the 2015 general election – more than seven times the £160,000 spent by Labour. The Liberal Democrats spent just over £22,000.

Leave campaigners spent £3.5m with a technology company called Aggregate IQ. Vote Leave said it allowed them to target swing voters online much more effectively and efficiently.  But BBC media editor Amol Rajan said that while huge amounts of money were being spent by political parties online, not everyone was “transparent about their ambitions online”.

We know that millions and millions of pounds have been spent by various people – foreign forces, sometimes extremists – who are politically advertising online trying to influence elections and they are not regulated,

he said.

The fact is the technology is changing very fast but the law hasn’t kept pace.  When it comes to broadcast advertising, we tend to know who’s advertising, how much money they are spending and they tend to do it within certain social norms, but when it comes to political advertising online, it’s very unclear who is spending the money and to what end….

The point is we simply don’t have clear regulations that require people to be transparent. The implication is that they might be foreign forces; they might be very wealthy individuals who are having a material impact on elections in western or non-Western democracies and we simply don’t know about it.

It seems pretty obvious if we regulate political advertising in other spheres we need to think very hard about the impact of political advertising online too.