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Keep thinking and carry on

Digital election advertising in New Zealand needs continued consideration from regulators

Transparency International New Zealand

Early voting in the New Zealand 2020 general election is underway, and the result should be known on 17 October. Through our mixed member proportional representation system, New Zealanders usually have two votes: one for a local district representative and one for political parties’ overall share of representatives in Parliament. This year, two referendums on ‘End of Life Choice’ and ‘Cannabis Legalisation and Control’ increase the number of decisions on the ballot to four.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to focus on this important exercise in democracy because of the urgent and intense demands placed across many other spheres of work. COVID-19 has also smothered our political thinking space ahead of the election, and even caused the election to be postponed by four weeks. More votes means more demand for critical thinking from the country’s 3.77 million eligible voters, who are already suffering from anxiety fatigue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a context, there is more opportunity for misinformation and distraction to thrive, undermining the integrity of the democratic process.

Digital to the fore

Like so much else this year, a good deal of campaigning has moved online. Candidates have had few opportunities to hold babies and stand on soapboxes. Our election campaign regulations in New Zealand have recently changed to enable the growth of digital ads, but transparency remains an area of concern.

Digital election advertising is a rapidly growing area. In the last national election in 2017, almost 19 per cent of all reported party expenditures were used for digital campaigning. Sixty-four per cent of New Zealanders used the internet for information about the election. We can expect to see these figures increase this year.

To date, New Zealand has allowed digital providers to largely self-regulate on transparency around election spending. Their response has been variable. Platforms have ramped up their efforts to shut down accounts controlled by foreign adversaries, prevent social media hacks, and address ‘astroturfing’, i.e. the spread of disinformation through robot accounts and paid participations. But without a regulatory framework outlawing foreign social media advertising in New Zealand elections, the country remains at the whim of social media giants to fight foreign influence campaigns.

Dark money at work

Weak disclosure laws mean that bad-faith actors can legally spend NZ$13,600 (US$8,980) to influence elections without any disclosure whatsoever. They can spend up to NZ$100,000 (US$66,000) without having to submit a post election expense report, and as much as NZ$330,000 (US$217,800) without disclosing funding sources. This is “dark money” at work. A lack of proactive enforcement powers means that the Electoral Commission is unable to monitor technology companies to ensure compliance with existing laws. Parliamentary Service funding of online political advertisements is also opaque because there are no specific reporting requirements on that funding, despite there being evidence through Facebook Ad Library of substantial amounts of it being used for advertising. Advertising threshold limits were not designed for an era of online campaigning, where a modest amount of money can buy a lot of reach.

Misinformation is also on the increase, as we know from the number of complaints coming to the Advertising Standards Authority. This agency walks a difficult line between unnecessarily limiting the free speech vital to democracy and fighting against the promotion of untrue or misleading political advertisements. The volume of complaints and a lack of resourcing creates pressure which affects responsiveness.

New challenges, new needs

In order to protect the integrity of elections in New Zealand, we need measured consideration of the new challenges to make sure that voters are able to make choices without the undue influence of money or misinformation.

We have made four recommendations to increase the level of transparency and accountability of online political campaigning in New Zealand:

  • Searchable registers of digital political ad buys
  • Detailed reporting in campaign expense returns
  • Greater investigation and enforcement by the Electoral Commission
  • Assessing the role of the Advertising Standards Agency

We recommend that Parliament takes the opportunity afforded by the review of the 2020 election to not only maintain NZ’s status and reputation as a leader in political integrity, but to show other countries the way forward in dealing with a critical issue for protecting democracies and fighting political corruption.

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