UK elections and the Online Safety agenda: Building a network of allies to influence policy

Over a period of 3 years, Digital Action built a network of allies to further policy action on online disinformation and platform accountability in the UK. The work centred on ensuring that the perspectives of both expert and marginalised individuals and groups were fed into the drafting of the Online Safety Bill. It also included responsive campaigns, including one calling for a ban on political ads and protecting the UK’s December election from disinformation spread on social media.

“Digital Action has been very effective at bringing organisations together working on the same issues. There are several statements that have been organised by Digital Action that likely would not have happened otherwise.”

Civil society organisation

How did we coordinate a response to the Government’s Online Harms paper? 

In April of 2019, the UK Government published its White Paper on Online Harms. This paper proposed a legal Duty of Care for platforms and emphasised the harms posed by legal content, including linked to harassment and the online information ecosystem.

In response to this, Digital Action built up a strong network of allies who have a profound understanding of the complexities of the issues but who weren’t all previously connected. We enabled them to develop greater sophistication in their proposals and greater ambition in their advocacy around platform regulation. Central to this community building was ensuring the perspectives of marginalised individuals and groups were amplified and anti-extremist groups and anti-hate communities were included. We are proud to have worked with organisations such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, HOPE Not Hate and Centre for Countering Digital Hate.

This coordinated work resulted in three different outputs:

  • A briefing of seven expert perspectives on the White Paper, reflecting concerns of freedom of expression. This was shared with partners across the UK.
  • A joint submission to the public consultation of the White Paper, highlighting in particular how the Duty of Care could apply to recommendation algorithms and the impact they have on the information ecosystem. Signatory organisations included Carnegie UK, Demos, Doteveryone, Fawcett, Glitch, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, The Jo Cox Foundation.

Several letters addressed to UK Secretary of State for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) highlighting the opportunity of the duty of care in countering digital threats to democracy signed by the network, with some valuable additions.

How did we launch a UK General Ad moratorium campaign?

In November of 2019, Twitter announced the platform would ban political ads in the run-up to the UK election. Capitalizing on our policy work to date, we saw an opportunity to highlight real gaps in electoral rules in the UK, and reacted quickly. We partnered with the Mozilla Foundation to launch a platform focused campaign backed by six other partners calling for a pause on all online political ads. Partners included Tech Inquiry, Demos, doteveryone, Open Data Institute, Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Open Knowledge Foundation.

Our open letter to Facebook and Google – “UK General Election Ad moratorium” – was picked up by the Guardian, The Times, Vice, and elsewhere, and subsequently the language of moratorium was later picked up by the declaration by the International Grand Committee on Disinformation. This was our first “quick-fire” advocacy campaign – read about some of our other rapid response campaigns.

“As we prepare to enter purdah, and without proper legislation, we’re calling on you to take a stand and issue an immediate moratorium on all political and issue-based advertising on your platforms until the conclusion of the UK parliamentary elections on 12 December.”

From our open letter to Facebook and Google about issuing a political ad moratorium

How did we influence an update of electoral regulation regarding digital campaigning?

We used the spotlight of the UK’s December General Election to raise concerns about gaps in the regulatory framework governing electoral rules, particularly with regards to digital campaigning; and to continue to build the communities we worked with earlier in the year around the proposed Online Harms White Paper.

Working with Luminate contractor Eric Kind, we supported partners who had been monitoring the digital environment during the campaign, compiling their findings into a joint briefing of their findings. It made the case that the need to update existing rules has moved from ‘urgent’ to ‘critical’ as it emerged main political parties circumvented such rules during the campaign. The call was supported by Demos, Doteveryone, Full Fact, Global Witness, ISD, Open Rights Group, a programme of the Oxford Internet Institute, and Who Targets Me and picked up by The Telegraph.

In February 2020, the UK Home Office and DCMS published their response to the public consultation. We coordinated a rapid response letter which was pitched to The Telegraph newspaper, which has campaigned for the Duty of Care pushing for increased transparency on adtech companies’ algorithms. Unfortunately, this endeavour was unsuccessful, highlighting the narrow media interest in the Duty of Care (focused on human stories) and our need to strengthen our media contacts. 

How did we respond to the Online Safety Bill?

In the summer of 2021 when the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill requested evidence for their inquiry, we mobilized our allies to ensure the views and proposals of our community were heard. Digital Action coordinated the only joint civil society response focused on democratic rights. This response – supported by 15 civil society organisations – was the culmination of the hard work of trust building and robust discussion which allowed these groups to come together with a united voice, including on some of the more contentious issues such as anonymity. Further, it allowed the community to generate new ideas around the UK’s democratic and journalist speech proposals.

“Digital Action has done an incredible job in helping us to orientate our new campaign, understand the policy landscape, introduce us to relevant partner organisations, and include us in multiple informal coalitions. Their work has been truly invaluable to us. ”

What impact did we have?

Our coordination of a joint democratic rights strategy – which included bi-weekly calls with 15 civil society organisations, intel sharing, joint strategizing and tactics – was deemed ‘essential’ by one of our collaborators and allowed space for us to collectively deal with the ever-changing dynamics of the UK’s Online Safety agenda. With our support,  this community developed greater sophistication in their own activities and greater ambition in their advocacy.

This community was also committed to ensuring the voice of the public was heard during the Committee’s request for evidence. We supported new polling into the public’s opinion on the Online Safety agenda and worked closely with Compassion in Politics on their Stop The Hate survey which collected the public’s views on social media.

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