Political parties that spread fake news online should be punished with bigger fines and restrictions on their use of data, according to a University of Oxford report.
The report, released today, also recommends that the Electoral Commission should keep a database of political campaigners’ social media accounts to keep track of the material they are posting.
This would mean that, for example, Boris Johnson’s Twitter account and the Facebook page of the People’s Vote campaign would be monitored by the UK’s election watchdog.
The Electoral Commission told Sky News it was considering the recommendations, which are intended to tackle fake news on social media during elections.
Experts commissioned by the Oxford Internet Institute to investigate the issue found that misleading and confusing content was widespread in British politics, despite 125 reforms by social media platforms over the last three years.
Professor Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, told Sky News the changes were not enough and that self-regulation had “failed.”
He said: “Self-regulation by social media platforms has failed to achieve the promised public policy benefit of improving the quality of the information ecosystem”.
The report is one of a series being released by the Oxford Technology and Elections Commission, a group of leading experts assembled by the Oxford Internet Institute to investigate how technology is changing elections.
Written by cyber firm Oxford Information Labs, it calls on the Electoral Commission to make a series of changes ahead of the next general election.
Among the recommendations, it says the Electoral Commission should create a voluntary database of campaigners’ social media accounts – such as the prime minister’s Twitter account or the Facebook pages of Brexit campaigners People’s Vote or Leave.EU – “to support fact-checking and raise public awareness of official campaigners.”
It also suggests requiring campaigns to give the Electoral Commission reports about all activity online, not just advertising, as is currently the case.
Stacie Hoffmann of Oxford Information Labs, one of the report’s authors, told Sky News that campaigns used a “blend” of paid and unpaid content to promote their message online, “standing or falling by the levels of engagement they provoke amongst users.”
The report also recommends tougher sanctions for parties that break the rules, including not only an increase of the maximum £20,000 fines but also restrictions on the use of data.
For instance, parties that break the law could have their use of Facebook advertising tools restricted, or be denied access to large databases of information on consumers sold by companies such as Experian.
An Electoral Commission spokesperson told Sky News: “We welcome this report’s echoing of our established recommendations to increase voter confidence by improving the transparency of digital campaigns.
“The report also makes some new recommendations, which we will consider; many of these will depend on changes to electoral law, which can only be taken forward by the UK’s governments.”
The Electoral Commission has called for political adverts online to be clearly marked in the same way as political leaflets.
Its spokesperson added they were continuing “to urge the UK government” to introduce this requirement, and to increase the maximum fines for breaking the law.
The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission is the latest group to call for reform of the UK’s electoral laws following the 2016 referendum, which saw campaigning groups accused of spreading fake news, including the official Vote Leave campaign, which posted Facebook ads claiming that Turkey was about to join the EU.
Facebook, the main focus for political campaigns, has introduced an archive of political advertisements and made changes to its algorithm to promote what it calls “meaningful content”. Along with Twitter, the social media giant has also invested in stopping the spread of fake news.
A government spokesperson told Sky News: “There should be greater transparency in political advertising, which is why we have already pledged to introduce the requirement for digital election material to be clearly branded.
“The government will bring forward technical proposals in the coming months.”
The Oxford Technology and Elections Commission will reveal its final conclusions next week.