Theresa May has been urged by senior MPs and experts to reform “dangerously outdated” election laws to stamp out “wild west” online campaigning.
In a letter to the prime minister seen by HuffPost UK, the group, which includes Labour Remainer Stephen Kinnock and Tory Brexiteer Dame Cheryl Gillan, said elections are now “vulnerable to foreign interference, disinformation and illicit donations”.
Without reforms, particularly covering the way information is distributed on social media platforms, democracy itself could fail, they warned.
It came as the Information Commissioner’s Office watchdog (ICO) called for online political advertising to be temporarily halted, so parties and campaigns can agree on new rules.
The demand was contained in a report by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) published on Facebook’s 15th birthday on Monday, which said democracy was under threat from “dark ads”.
In the letter accompanying the report, Kinnock, Gillan, the ERS, FullFact and other experts warned May: “Political parties spent around £3.2m on Facebook adverts during the 2017 general election – an increase of more than double since the 2015 election.
“When our primary election rules were created in 2000, the figure was £0: Facebook didn’t even exist. Yet today marks 15 years since the launch of this social media giant that has changed how campaigning works.
“Online campaigning is an unregulated ‘wild west’ that threatens the principles of transparency, fairness and the notion of a level playing field.”
They said the ease with which electoral rules could be broken or dodged had been laid bare in a spate of recent scandals.
“It is time for a full review of our dangerously outdated campaign rules. Without reform, we are leaving the door wide open to democratic failure”, the letter goes on.
The call follows a series of controversies over the use of social media and data in the EU referendum campaign and the US presidential election in 2016.
The Leave.EU campaign and Eldon Insurance, the company owned by the pro-Brexit campaign founder Arron Banks, were last week fined £120,000 by the ICO over data law breaches.
Facebook, meanwhile, was fined a maximum £500,000 by the ICO for illegally harvesting users’ data without clear consent, as part of the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Last year an anonymous website revealed to be behind a £250,000 pro-Brexit campaign running Facebook ads which urged voters to “bin Chequers” – a reference to Theresa May’s controversial Brexit plan.
Kinnock also announced plans to set up an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on electoral campaigning transparency to ramp up the pressure for reform.
The Labour MP called for unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than the current maximum of £20,000, while ensuring all campaigns report spending online.
“It is imperative that we act now and give resources and legislative bite to the regulatory bodies designed to protect our democracy’s integrity,” he wrote.
“We cannot allow this issue to be sidelined or overlooked.
“This is far bigger than Brexit, and if we do not act now to fix our democracy the consequences could be even worse in the future.”
The letter was signed by Kinnock; Gillon; the ERS; Bethany Shiner, law lecturer at Middlesex University; Cassie Staines, a senior policy officer at FullFact; Jacob Ohrvik-Stott, a researcher for Doteveryone and Sam Jeffers, co-founder, ‘Who Targets Me’.