DCMS chair Damian Collins. Image: Damiancollins.com
Britain’s electoral law is “not fit for purpose” with regulations governing elections “hopelessly out of date for the internet age”, according to a damning Commons report on “fake news”.
The report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee responds to work done by openDemocracy, the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr and others into the dark money and data influencing the Brexit vote and British politics more widely, calling for significant changes to the way elections and referendums are run in the UK.
Damian Collins, chair of the Committee responsible for the new report, said its investigations over the last 18 months points to democracy being “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.”
Among the numerous recommendations in the report are calls for the government to urgently reform current electoral communications laws and to address the issue of overseas agency involvement in UK elections, including Russia.
Much of the 108 page report covers the territory of “dark money” and the unidentifiable sources of influential political campaigning, which have been highlighted by openDemocracy investigations over the past two years.
Collins repeated his committee’s previous demand to the government to reveal “how many investigations are currently being carried out into Russian interference in UK politics.” He said the government needed to order an independent inquiry into the “impact of disinformation and voter manipulation” in recent elections, including the 2016 UK referendum and the 2014 Scottish referendum.
Key sections of the lengthy report will make for uncomfortable reading for Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. In no unclear terms, the MPs accuse two senior Facebook executives of “deliberately” misleading their committee. Zuckerberg’s own claim that Facebook has never sold user data is dismissed in the report as “simply untrue.”
Collins himself takes aim at Zuckerberg, saying that although the Facebook boss may believe he is not accountable to the UK Parliament, “he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world.” The report pulls no punches stating: “Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law.
The report directly accused Facebook of “deliberately” seeking to frustrate the work of the DCMS committee by giving “incomplete, disingenuous and at times misleading answers.”
Commenting on the report, Collins said: “The big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights.”
Alongside its focus on social media platforms, the committee’s analysis of fake news also examined recent political campaigning and funding.
How the pro-Brexit campaign Leave.EU operated and was funded has been the subject of openDemocracy probes. The report says that from evidence received from the Information Commissioner's Office and from the Electoral Commission, “it is clear that a porous relationship existed between Eldon Insurance [a company controlled by Arron Banks] and Leave.EU.”
openDemocracy were the first news organisation to reveal that staff and data from Eldon was augmenting the work of the pro-Brexit campaign co-founded by Banks, Leave.EU.
The report says that Banks and his deputy, Andy Wigmore, showed a “complete disregard and disdain for the parliamentary process” when they appeared in front of the committee. “It is now evident that they gave misleading evidence to us… They are individuals, clearly, who have a passing regard for the truth.”
The operations of the Canadian political consultancy and tech company, Aggregate IQ, are also examined in the report. AIQ have worked on both the recent US Presidential primaries and for Brexit-related organisations, including the designated VoteLeave group during the 2016 referendum. The report says that the way AIQ operates “highlights the fact that data has been and still is being used extensively by private companies to target people, often in a political context, in order to influence their decisions.”
The report offers a stark warning, saying, this “is far more common than people think.”
On the issue of targeted advertising and the control of political campaigning, the report is equally stark, stating: “Electoral law is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed to reflect changes in campaigning techniques.”
openDemocracy has consistently argued that a new era of absolute transparency is necessary if our democracies are to survive. The report echoes this, saying the era of physical leaflets and billboards has effectively moved online to utilise micro-targeted political campaigning. Collins’ committee says the government should now carry out a “comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations surrounding political work during elections and referenda.”
This adds to the pressure on the government to address the inadequacies of current electoral laws that have previously been identified by the Law Commission in 2016 and more recently by the Electoral Commission itself.
The DUP-CRC connection
The lack of transparency in political advertising – addressed in-depth by openDemocracy in our work on “dark money” – is illustrated in the DCMS committee report by an examination of the Constitutional Research Council, the Glasgow-based unincorporated funding organisation. The CRC, whose sole office holder is its chairman, Richard Cook, donated £435,000 to Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The money, the biggest political donation in Northern Ireland’s history, was largely spent on pro-leave advertising during the 2016 referendum.
openDemocracy broke the story on the financial connection between the CRC and the DUP cash.
The report reveals that the DCMS committee twice wrote to Cook asking him to reveal the source of the £435,000 donation. Cook replied that he was “greatly amused” by the committee’s letter before accusing Collins and his colleagues of “spreading fake news and disinformation about him.” He has still not revealed where the money came from.
The report concludes that “there is an absence of transparency surrounding the relationship between the CRC, the DUP and Vote Leave.” The committee accuses the CRC of “deliberately and knowingly” exploiting a loophole in electoral law to funnel money to the DUP.
Although the government had an opportunity last year to confirm its previous promise to change Northern Ireland’s electoral laws on donations which would have revealed the identity of the individual or group behind the record donation to the DUP, the promise was never kept.
The report however recommends that the government extend the transparency rules around political party donations in Northern Ireland from 2014. It states: “We urge the government to make this change in the law as soon as is practicable to ensure full transparency...”
On foreign influence in political campaigns in the UK, the report says that while the government accepted evidence of Russian activity in the Skripal poisoning case, it has been “reluctant to accept evidence of interference in the 2016 UK referendum. It states: “The UK is clearly vulnerable to covert digital influence campaigns and the government should be conducting analysis to understand the extent of the targeting of voters, by foreign players during past elections.”