Paid and digital content promoted by political parties would need to show who was responsible for its production and publication © Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

The UK on Wednesday outlined proposals designed to bring greater transparency to online political campaigning by requiring imprints on digital content.

Civil society groups welcomed the move but said many more steps were needed to make the online political space more resistant to exploitation.

Under the government’s proposals, paid and digital content promoted by political parties, registered third-party campaigners, candidates, elected officials and registered referendum campaigners, would need to show who was responsible for its production and publication.

Other campaigners would only require digital imprints in cases where they had paid for promotion, in order to protect the right to free speech.

Groups such as the Electoral Commission, which oversees elections and regulates election finance in the UK, have for years called for laws to bring the requirements on digital campaigning in line with its analogue counterpart, as spending on digital advertising has ballooned.

In 2014, the Scottish government implemented digital imprints ahead of the independence referendum. In a report, the Electoral Commission welcomed the move, although it noted that the rule led to some confusion over whether individual social media accounts required imprints.

The government said that the proposals, which it will consult on for 12 weeks, would enable better monitoring of spending rules and help to reduce intimidation in public life by imposing greater accountability on campaigners.

“People want to engage with politics online,” said Chloe Smith, minister for the constitution and devolution. “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.”

Supporters of electoral reform welcomed the move as a starting point.

“For too long, our democracy has been wide open to anonymous ‘dark ads’, dodgy donors, and foreign interference online,” said Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, a campaign group. “This won’t solve all that, but it will help to plug one of the many leaks in HMS Democracy.”

Mr Hughes said that strong enforcement was necessary to make the proposals effectual, adding that the current fines for infringement were simply viewed as “the cost of doing business”.

Nigel Gwilliam, director of media affairs at the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, also drew attention to the impact of targeted political advertising on electoral politics.

“In a democracy, political ideas need to be aired and debated in the public square,” he said. “Microtargeting has the potential to subvert this, especially when combined with the absence of fact-checking or any other message regulation.”

Rebecca Stimson, head of UK public policy at Facebook, said the company welcomed the government’s consultation. She added that Facebook had “led the way on online transparency” by adding a “paid for by” disclaimer to political adverts and placing them into an “ad library” for everyone to see.

The social media company came under fire last year for exempting political advertising from its usual fact-checking even as other platforms such as Twitter moved to pull such paid content.

The government said that throughout the consultation period, it would consider whether to expand the requirement for digital imprints beyond election material to wider political advertising.

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