The Conservatives have refused to disclose the content of the election adverts they are targeting at voters in marginal seats over social media, raising concerns that Britain’s elections regulator is unable to properly scrutinise them.
Campaigners warn that the Electoral Commission is essentially blind when it comes to the ads because only the voters targeted by parties get to see them – unlike a billboard or television spot.
They also warn that the approach allows parties to put out “wildly different” and sometimes contradictory messages to different voters without being held to account for their discrepancies.
The Conservative party failed to respond to repeated requests by The Independent to disclose the content of the adverts they are micro-targeting at voters on Facebook and other social networks.
Labour did respond and provided a small number of adverts on request. The party however said it had over 1,200 different adverts and suggested it would be impractical to make all of them available.
The Electoral Commission says it is “live monitoring” the general election campaign and will report on any changes needed to the regulatory regime after the 8 June vote.
The content of adverts shown to voters is important because under Electoral Commission rules it determines whether spending on such campaigning should be marked as local or national.
Adverts that only promote political parties’ national messages are allowed to be registered as national spending – with more relaxed spending limits – even if they are targeted to a specific area.
But if local issues or candidates are named in such adverts then their cost must be registered as local candidate spending – with strict limits put in place to stop money from deciding elections.
Alexandra Runswick, director of Unlock Democracy, said: “Political parties targeting voters on social media during general elections is not a new issue, and yet our electoral law has failed to catch up. Rather than being able to rely on an independent body to monitor election spending – to make sure all parties are playing by the rules – it has once again been left to the public and campaigners to hold parties to account.
“Social media advertising is targeted at individuals using private online accounts and therefore by its very nature is harder to police than the more traditional campaign communications, like billboards and newspaper adverts. But we know that parties have spent and are spending money on targeted online advertising – in the 2015 general election alone, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on Facebook campaigns, while Labour spent over £16k.
“Parties should of course be able to use these platforms to reach potential voters, but the Electoral Commission also needs to be equipped to monitor how parties are spending their money. Otherwise, we simply don’t know whether they are making accurate reports.
“At the moment, too many loopholes exist for parties to exploit. Are parties, for example, declaring targeted social media adverts in local candidates’ budgets? Without urgent reform, a new election expenses scandal may be on the horizon.”
Katie Ghose, the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), said: “Digital campaigning can be a good thing, but the kind of micro-targeting we’re seeing raises serious questions about transparency. We have no idea who or how the parties are going after voters.
“And unlike public billboards or TV broadcasts, social media targeting is ‘for your eyes only’ – something that can enable parties to pedal widely different messages without being held to account.
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“This is just the latest trend of something that is rife in our politics. The ERS has found that campaigns spend 22 times as much money in the most competitive constituencies compared to the safest seats.
“That looks likely to be replicated when it comes to the new digital micro-targeting. So in many ways, this is nothing new – it’s an extension of a voting system that leads parties to go after a handful of people in marginal seats rather than speaking to all voters.”
At general elections local candidates can spend only £8,700 plus either 6p or 9p per registered parliamentary voter in their seat, depending on the type of constituency. Nationally, limits are far more relaxed, with parties allowed to spend £30,000 per seat, usually a total of around £19m for nationwide parties.
The latest episode comes days after the Information Commissioner’s Office launched an inquiry into the misuse of personal data by election campaigns when it comes to targeting voters.
The Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, said last week there was “data protection risks” from new methods and reminded parties of “the need to comply with the law” during elections.
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said: “Whether a cost should be accounted for at a local or national level is dependent on who the particular activity is seeking to promote. Our guidance explains that candidates need to make an honest and reasonable assessment as to whether the costs of campaign activity were for their election or whether they were for promoting the national party.
“Targeting is not new for political campaigning; social media is just a different medium, though one which enables quick and low cost communications at scale. We are continually developing our understanding in this area, including through live monitoring of activity. We will report after the election on campaign spending, and on what changes to the regulatory regime may need to be made for future polls.”