'Dark ads' could be used to influence Holyrood election outcome

So-called "dark ads" on social media could be exploited in next year’s Scottish Parliament election unless action is taken to tighten new campaign rules, pro-democracy groups have warned.

Dark ads could be exploited on social media under the loophole
Dark ads could be exploited on social media under the loophole

Online campaign adverts featuring pictures and videos may escape the new regulations which require the bodies paying for them to be clearly set out.

It means images and videos could be downloaded and re-shared widely with voters left in the dark about who is behind them - because there is no requirement to “embed” the sponsor's name in the image.

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Five leading democracy organisations have now written to Constitution Secretary Michael Russell calling on him to tighten new regulations on campaigning due to come into effect in Scotland on Monday.

Willie Sullivan, director of Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said: “While we welcome Scottish Government action to end ‘dark ads’, these rules need tightening to protect a free and fair debate.

"Voters must know who is trying to influence our political debate. We hope the government looks again at this potential loophole in advance of the Holyrood elections.”

There have been widespread claims that Russia sought to interfere in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum - and next year's Holyrood vote is poised to be fought on Scotland's right to stage another vote on leaving the UK.

Although the new regulations do require that online picture and video adverts should be clear about who is paying for them, this does not need to be embedded in them.

Kyle Taylor, director of Fair Vote UK, warned this is a "loophole" that could be exploited by unscrupulous groups in the course of the campaign.

"Transparency information on campaign videos could 'disappear' the moment someone downloads and re-shares it," he said.

"It would be like putting an imprint on a leaflet as a tear-away strip that you just remove and then share again. This is the most basic aspect of digital imprints - that they be embedded on the image/in the video, as is legally required in the USA for TV ads.”

Unlike printed campaign literature, online election campaign material isn’t currently required to have an ‘imprint’, stating who is publishing it. Campaigners have long been calling for change amid concerns over the spread of ‘dark ads’ on social media – with voters unclear about who is trying to sway the debate.

The changes introduced by the Scottish Government have been widely welcomed until the potential loophole over images or videos emerged.

Democracy groups says it is the equivalent of including an imprint on a leaflet’s envelope, but not the leaflet itself.

As well as the Electoral Reform Society and Fair Vote UK, other signatories on the letter to Mr Russell include Transparency International UK, Unlock Democracy and the Open Rights Group.

They state: “We would urge you to close this loophole before the regulations come into effect and to make clear that video/image online campaign materials must contain a clear imprint within the material itself.”

This is “common practice” with political video advertisements in countries including the United States, according to the campaigners.

"As it stands, we are deeply concerned this is an open invitation to abuse,” they add.

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