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The Democratic Implications of Social Media

Policy directions to curb disinformation during election campaigns

Digital technology has many benefits to society, but it can have negative implications on democracy. There is a need for legislation restricting the production of political disinformation during political campaigns.





Bec Savage

Eliška Suchochlebová

Aleksandra Urbanowska

Puilam Yip

Jamie Zealley

Executive Summary

21st century political information is increasingly constituted by disinformation. Social media serves as the main facilitator of this transition, paving the way for user-generated content and direct communication between political figures and the people. Replacing print media as the dominant source of information, the online world hosts a myriad of unsubstantiated political opinion, content and discourse. Additionally, social media sites are built on personal data that can be analysed to intimately understand user interests. This creates new pathways for the further spread of false information through personally catered news feeds and targeted advertising. As a result, new political norms of digital campaigning have emerged within UK politics, raising questions fo rthe democratic principles of elections and referendums.

Current UK laws do not recognise these potential political consequences, despite academic and governmental reports identifying social media’s potential as a promotional tool, threat to data privacy and host of ‘fake news’. The Communications Act (UK Government, 2003) is restricted to regulating political speech on broadcast media only, whilst the campaign finance regulations outlined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (UK Government, 2000) are outdated. Furthermore, although the Government has outlined a ‘Digital Charter’, minimal legislation has been passed to meet its objectives. The ‘Online Harms’ White Paper seeks progress in this regard, however its focus on increasing online safety by regulating internet companies pays limited attention to user-generated content, political information and the conduct of political elites. While disinformation is included under ‘harms’, both the bill’s approach and promised future legislation to combat it are unclear at this time.

Therefore, this report proposes policy which accounts specifically for the interaction between disinformation and political campaigning in the UK. During its analysis, it concedes the difficulties of legislating on this topic, particularly the right to freedom of expression. Enshrined in the Human Rights Act (1998), this reduces the actionable environment within which to moderate online content creation in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the paper will analyse the 2016 Brexit referendum to illustrate the real threat that political disinformation can have to important democratic processes. Then, possible policy solutions to confront these challenges are discussed, recommending action from three angles sensitive to freedom of expression rights and building on existing mechanisms:

  1. Inclusion, in any government digital literacy programme, of skills for critically appraising and discouraging spread of online disinformation during political campaigns.

  2. Increased regulation of political campaign advertising, including the examination of advert content and greater transparency of advertisement backers or targeting mechanisms.

  3. Amendment to the Electoral Commission’s list of sanctionable electoral offences to include acts of public disinformation committed by candidates and campaigns

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