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With Facebook election ad spend soaring, who is controlling our elections?

Online election advertising has become like “the Wild West”, it has been warned, but now a new clampdown is now coming into force.

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Millions are being spent by political parties on Facebook advertising

Remember the days when elections were elections?

When people pretended to be out when they spotted somebody wearing a rosette marching up the drive?

When political advertising usually involved garish leaflets and roadside billboards featuring dole queues?

While candidates will insist they spend as much time as ever meeting the people and knocking on doors, today's battle for hearts and minds is taking place on Facebook and Twitter rather than on the doorstep.

At the 2015 General Election, political parties were reported to have spent £1.5 million on Facebook advertising, but for the poll two years later this is said to have more than doubled to £3.2 million.

The use of carefully targeted social media is said to have played a decisive role in the ousting of Nick Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency at the 2017 General Election, and videos put out by both Labour and Conservative supporters are said to have reached millions of viewers.

But while promotional material put out through the traditional means has been subject to strict regulation for many decades, the growing role of social media has caught the electoral authorities unawares.

In Britain, as in the US, a lack of regulation has led to cries of 'fake news' and claims of foreign interference.

Nigel Farage and Chuka Umunna

This week, the Government finally announced new regulations governing the use of social media as a propaganda tool.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) says these changes cannot come soon enough, likening the existing lack of regulation to the 'Wild West'.

One of the biggest concerns is the anonymity that social media affords. Ad hoc groups which broadly support a particular candidate or party have been able put out messages which have been seen by millions of people, without having to declare who they represent or how they are funded.

The new regulations will attempt to tackle this by including a requirement for online election material to clearly display who had produced it.

The rules will also ban anybody found guilty of intimidating or abusive behaviour from running for office, and a consultation will be launched to look at tightening laws looking at overseas donations.

"It will require candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners to include a notice declaring who has paid for and promoted election material," says a spokesman for the group.

"This is a vital step for helping to prevent misleading political advertising online."

ERS says that at the moment only printed election material such details to be given, meaning that up until now online adverts have gone unregulated. This has led to a rise in 'dark ads’ and election materials produced by unknown organisations with no regulation or oversight.

Jess Garland

One of the reasons why social media is such a popular place for political campaigners to advertise is the ability to target different advertisements at different groups.

Supposing you have liked a post on Facebook voicing concerns about a local hospital, supporters of a particular candidate may covertly direct material your way subtly suggesting how you should vote.

If you are a Brexiteer, political campaigners may tell you to vote a certain way to ensure Britain leaves the EU. But if you are a Remain supporter, the same party may target you with a different message.

Jess Garland, director of policy at ERS, says: "‘Dark ads’ can be micro-targeted to individual voters who may not be aware of the fact they are being targeted, and why.

"As these ads are visible only to the creator and the individual or group being targeted, different voters can be targeted with conflicting information without the sender facing any scrutiny."

She believes the way these advertisements can be tailored to feed off ideas that the viewer may already have is having a corrosive effect on debate.

"These techniques, as well as playing into tribalism and polarisation in politics are also moving democratic life outside of our shared public space," she says.

"The shift to online campaigning also creates problems for regulating money in politics and for attempts to create a level playing field.

"With online material, cost does not have the same direct correlation with reach that it does with printed materials. Lower spending does not necessarily mean fewer people seeing the ads."

Darren Hughes

Darren Hughes, chief executive of ERS, said: “This update the UK’s analogue campaign laws is long overdue and will finally and bring them into the digital age.

“For too long our electoral laws have been trailing behind campaigning practices allowing a political ‘wild west’ in online adverts – ripe for abuse, interference and misinformation."

But Mr Hughes says the moves should only be seen as the first step towards comprehensive reform of Britain's electoral laws.

"Now we need to see a full review of our dangerously outdated regulations if we are to fully safeguard our democratic processes.”