Second APPG Oral Evidence Session

June 24, 2019

Today the APPG on Electoral Campaigning Transparency welcomed Dr. Nick Anstead to give oral evidence.

Dr. Nick Anstead is Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, where he also serves as programme director for the MSc Politics and Communication. Dr Anstead joined the Department in September 2010. Prior to this, he was a Lecturer in Politics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Previously, he studied at Mansfield College, the University of Oxford (BA in Modern History) and Royal Holloway, University of London (MSc and PhD in Politics).

His expertise includes comparative politics; data-driven campaigning; elections; internet; North American politics; political participation; political ideas; political institutions; political parties; public opinion; UK politics; Western European politics.

You can listen to all of his testimony below. Some highlights include (paraphrasing from his testimony):

Dr. Anstead noted that institutions need to be seen to work if we are to expect people to trust them and if we are serious about maintaining and improving democracy in the UK. It is fair to say that we currently have a crisis of trust in our democratic institutions, having said that, problems are bound to occur.

We have overturned a consensus we have had for 50 or so years that political advertising is to be kept out of politics, the emergence of platforms such as Facebook have led to this agreement changing. This is a significant change in how we politically communicate.

On transparency – It is one regulatory solution. Facebook is inherently different in obvious ways to broadcast media. Facebook is a private company, its product is the data users give them. Asking Facebook to be transparent on this would have an impact on their profit margin so it can be assumed they would resist this ask strongly. We must also remember that Facebook is a networked environment so we need to carefully delineate collusion and so on. Facebook ultimately would resist transparency probably on two counts, a) that the information is corporate and therefore sensitive and b) they would defend privacy framed as the privacy of users.

On deterrence – the electoral commission says they lack the ability to act as a formidable deterrent. Most electoral actors will bend the rules to gain the advantage over their opponents. There is huge incentive to break the rules using platforms such as Facebook where actors can spend large sums of money in an undetected fashion.

On monitoring – elections are infrequent, high-risk events. The communications edifice may have completely changed between two elections so effective monitoring presents a constant problem.

Dr. Anstead pointed out The Electoral Commission needs to be considerably strengthened to deal with an ever-changing communications environment. It is possibly not the answer to worry only about Facebook, though we should be worrying about them, but to overcome the regulatory problems by instilling some iron-clad values into our electoral procedures. The fact is we now have political parties now able to engage in extremely expensive commercial political advertising, we need as a society to have a conversation about the impact of allowing this type of money to enter UK politics like this. With recent elections, we can’t prove that this new type of advertising influenced the outcomes and it is probably missing the point anyway – the point really is, do we have robust electoral policing that can regulate this advertising and the money that goes with it. The basic value that has been to a certain extent has instilled into electoral procedures with the advent of this kind of political advertising is that votes can be bought.

If we consider the next major democratic act, which may be a General Election or another referendum, the particular storm we got in 2016 was partially a consequence of holding a referendum. In this event, voters weren’t as bound by party politics so there was in many ways everything to play for in a very delineated manner that created a very fruitful environment for the type of political commercial advertising that we saw emerge during the campaign. Also communications edifices were created outside of the main parties. However it would be better to enter an election event with a stronger electoral commission.

One major issue he raised is that because UK voters have lost a serious amount of trust in their democratic institutions, any outcome of a General or a referendum is bound to face calls of illegality, cheating and of being invalid so it is in the best interest of parties across the political spectrum to deal with this issue – so this is potentially a serious rhetorical problem for political parties. We need to revisit the institutional arrangements that govern elections and this can’t just be by looking at the referendum but needs to take into account future events, the goal then would be to create a robust enough but nimble, reactive institutional arrangements that could not only fix the things that went wrong in 2016 but anticipate and deal with problems in the future as they occur.

We look forward to welcoming Full Fact, DEMOS and Dr. Bethany Shiner at our next session on Tuesday 2 July.

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