2024 is the world’s largest ever election year, with over two billion voters going to the polls across 50 countries this year, including the UK, US, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Russia, as well as nine parliamentary elections across Europe. 

UK update

Recent studies showed 60% of people in the UK did not think that online information about politics is trustworthy. 

In November 2023, new rules came into force, aimed at increasing transparency around online political campaigning. 

Under the new rules, most political digital campaign materials will now require an imprint, showing who paid for and produced it. This will help voters know who is behind ads they see online and who is paying to influence their vote. 

While parties, campaigners and candidates were already required to add imprints to campaign material, such as leaflets, the Electoral Commission states that it “has been calling for this requirement to be extended to digital material since 2003”.  The UK's Electoral Commission has published guidance for political parties and campaigners to help them follow the new imprints law. 

The UK's Electoral Commission would like the reforms to go further. It has been recommending for some time that the UK Government and Parliament introduce laws to improve the controls on donations and loans, and that spending categories should be revised to provide more useful information about what parties and campaigners spend money on, including on digital advertising. 

Meanwhile, in relation to political advertising claims themselves, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has resisted calls for it to regulate political advertising to ensure the claims made are honest, legal, decent and truthful.  For a number of reasons, the ASA does not consider itself to be ideally placed to perform this function, and we tend to agree; not least because ads can continue to be shown for many weeks or many months (or in some cases, years) while the ASA pursues its investigation into the claims made in the ad - during which time an election would come and go, and election results cannot normally be undone.

EU update

Meanwhile, EU institutions and member states are concerned about the lack of transparency and targeting of political advertising. 

In a move that will come too late to have an impact on this year's raft of elections, the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee has approved an agreement on transparency and targeting of political advertising. The changes are expected to be rubber stamped at the end of this month (February 2024), and will come into force in the summer of 2025. 

The EU’s latest press release makes clear that existing national rules for regulating political advertising are considered “no longer fit for purpose”, and that the latest changes will help consolidate the “fragmented” political advertising regimes across EU member states. 

Under the new rules:

  • Political ads will have to be clearly labelled as such so that voters are able to recognise them.
  • People must be able to easily obtain information on why they are seeing an ad, who is financing it, where are they established, how much have they paid and to which elections or referendum the message is linked. This is to ensure greater accountability for the ads, and should also enhance data protection measures, as separate and explicit consent will need to be given for targeted online political ads.
  • Sponsoring ads from outside the EU will also be prohibited in the three-month period before an election or referendum in order to combat disinformation and foreign interference.

The rules only affect paid for political ads and do not affect the rules on financing of political campaigns or the content of political ads. 

Time will tell whether these new rules achieve their goal.