Online Political Advertising: On a Road to Regulation?

This House of Lords Library Briefing considers the evolution of online political advertising and details the legislative reforms that are being considered by the Government.

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Online political advertising has grown dramatically since 2011. In 2017, campaigners in the UK spent nearly half (43%) of their total advertising budget on online advertising, compared to less than 1% (0.35%) of their total advertising budget in 2011.

Campaigners, such as the Electoral Reform Society, have argued that there is “a near-total lack of regulation of online political advertising” and have called for legislative reform. The debate around political advertising generally falls within three categories:

  • factchecking;
  • microtargeting; and
  • disclosure of the source of adverts.

In 2018 and 2019, both the Electoral Commission and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee investigated the increased use of digital campaigns. Their reports gave recommendations on legislative changes that could be implemented, including the possible introduction of an imprint requirement for digital adverts. This would give information such as the name of the person or the group that paid for it. They also flagged up areas that they did not believe needed changing, such as the introduction of legal requirements to factcheck claims made in political adverts.

Following allegations of widespread misuse of users’ data in the UK and US elections in 2016, some social media platforms voluntarily updated their policies on political advertising. In October 2019, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the platform would no longer allow political adverts on its site. In addition, Facebook and Google made changes to the way political advertisers could engage with voters.

In May 2019, the Government committed to implementing an imprint requirement for digital adverts. This was not introduced before the December election. The Government has since reaffirmed its commitment to extending regulations covering the identification of campaigners offline to the online sphere. It also has pledged to “launch a consultation on electoral integrity that will consider measures to […] refresh our laws for the digital age”.

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