Online political advertisements could require labels for the first time under plans unveiled by the government, in an effort to inject more transparency into digital campaigning.
The rules would require a “digital imprint”, revealing who is behind the message, to be included on formal campaign ads as well as “organic” content made by certain campaigners and candidates on sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Chloe Smith, the minister for constitution and devolution, said: “People want to engage with politics online. That’s where campaigners connect with voters and is why, ahead of elections, almost half of political advertising budgets are now spent on digital content and activity.
“But people want to know who is talking. Voters value transparency, so we must ensure that there are clear rules to help them see who is behind campaign content online.”
She said the proposals outlined on Wednesday were “a big step forward towards making UK politics even more transparent and would lead to one of the most comprehensive set of regulations operating in the world today”.
The rules, which the government has now put out to consultation, are designed to mimic those in offline campaigning, where printed ads are largely unregulated save for the requirement that they include an “imprint” revealing who paid for their placement.
In the digital space, the content of the adverts would remain unregulated, but a requirement for a “digital imprint” would apply regardless of where the advert was being promoted from, or what platform it was on. It would apply year-round rather than just in electoral periods.
Any material “intended to achieve the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates, or if it relates to a referendum” would require an imprint, showing who was promoting it and on whose behalf.
To an extent, the regulations formalise requirements that some digital advertisers, such as Facebook, have imposed voluntarily. Political ads on the social network must contain a disclosure marking them as such, and must be linked to a specific named entity.
But the government’s proposals go further, requiring the imprints on non-paid content if it was promoted by “registered political parties, registered third party campaigners, candidates, holders of elected office and registered referendum campaigners”. Unregistered campaigners would not need to put an imprint on organic content, to avoid members of the public getting caught up in the regulations.