Britain tightens online campaigning rules to fend off foreign influence

File photo. Stop the Silence campaigners launch a nationwide poster campaign outside Parliament in London, Britain, 27 February 2017. [Andy Rain/EPA/EFE]

Britain plans to tighten rules around online campaigning to make political parties and campaigners state more clearly who they are, the government said on Wednesday (12 August), seeking to allay fears about interference in its democracy.

The security of Britain’s electoral system has been questioned by lawmakers who say outdated rules, last updated nearly 20 years ago, have left loopholes which allow disinformation to flourish and could let other countries influence results.

The government has acknowledged a need for updated laws to defend the democratic process from foreign influence. In July ministers accused “Russian actors” of seeking to interfere in the 2019 election.

Wednesday’s proposals will require online campaign material to carry an imprint stating who is promoting it and on whose behalf, bringing the rules for digital campaigning in line with existing regulations covering printed election material.

“People want to engage with politics online. That’s where campaigners connect with voters,” said Chloe Smith, Minister for the Constitution & Devolution.

“But people want to know who is talking,” she added. “Voters value transparency so we must ensure that there are clear rules to help them see who is behind campaign content online.”

The new rules, which are subject to consultation, will allow electoral regulators to better monitor who is promoting election material online and better enforce the existing spending limits, the government said.

Facebook said it wanted to see rules updated and welcomed the consultation.

Britain’s last substantive update to its electoral laws was in 2001, before the rise of Facebook and Twitter – both of which have become key battlegrounds of public opinion in recent votes including the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union and 2017 and 2019 general elections.

A parliamentary report published last month said that Russia had tried to influence a referendum in 2014 when voters in Scotland rejected independence, and criticised the government for not doing more to find out whether Moscow had meddled in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

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