The Electoral Commission is powerless to stop foreign efforts to influence voters in the British election on Facebook and other social media, its chief executive has said.
Claire Bassett told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “If something is happening outside of the borders of this country and is not part of any of the regime we are responsible for, it’s not something we can cover within our regulation.”
Concerns have been raised about companies that claim to use advanced data analysis of social media profiles to target people with highly tailored messages. Asked whether there was anything the commission could do if foreign individuals or governments were paying for this kind of targeting to be used on British audiences, Bassett responded: “Not really, no.”
But she said the commission had not seen evidence of significant interference from overseas. “We don’t have evidence that there is widespread activity along the lines of [what] you set out … If we did see it, we would immediately act and we would seek to work with the providers and companies if we could.”
She said the commission would also work with “other government agencies as appropriate” to tackle any such attempts at interference.
Bassett said the commission monitored closely political parties’ use of data analytics and social media to target voters. “We do live-time monitoring of what’s happening on social media … the public have been quite keen to let us know where this campaigning is happening.”
She said the commission had recommended that “imprint” rules on declaring who paid for traditional campaign materials such as leaflets should also apply to social media.
“At the moment those rules don’t extend to social media and we have recommended that that should happen. That recommendation was acted on by the Scottish government for the independence referendum and we saw that having an effect there,” she said.