LORDS

Time for better oversight of polling and online political communications

17 April 2018

The Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media calls for a tighter oversight of opinion polling in the wake of polling failures in the 2015 general election, the EU referendum in 2016 and the 2017 general election. The Committee's report also considers the impact of digital media on politics, and what can be done to combat the spread of misinformation online.

Committee Chairman

Chairman of the Committee, Lord Lipsey, said:

"The polling industry needs to get its house in order. Otherwise the case for banning polling in the run-up to elections – one we for now reject – will become stronger. We heard compelling evidence that polls influence the narrative around elections and thus go to the root of our democratic debate. This makes it vital they are conducted properly and held to the highest standards of accuracy.

"We want the British Polling Council to take a more proactive role in how it regulates polling and influences the reporting of polls. Too often minor changes in the main parties' standing, often within the margin of error, are reported by a breathless media as indicating a real change in the real world, and even as indicating which party might end up forming the Government. The BPC needs to step up to the plate. It should do more and raise concerns with IPSO, IMPRESS or Ofcom where there is significant misreporting of poll results.

"Voters have a right to know who paid for polls. The Electoral Commission should have a role in monitoring all voting intention polls published during an election campaign, and publishing their funding sources.

"On the impact of digital media on politics, while much of our evidence came before the current row with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, it was clear to us that some activity on digital media poses a significant risk to politics and democracy in the UK. More needs to be done to better understand that threat and educate the population to spot 'fake news' and baseless propaganda online.

"One concrete step that the Government can take now is to require all online campaign communications to carry an imprint to say who published it, as is the case for the printed material, and give the Electoral Commission the power to police and enforce that rule.

"Taken together, a lack of transparency and sometimes inaccurate polls, and the murky world of online political communications, pose an insidious threat to our political system. While we may be one of the oldest democracies in the world we must face up to these very contemporary dangers. Government, parliament and the polling industry must act now, before the damage goes deeper."

Recommendations included in the report

  • The remit of the British Polling Council should be expanded to take on a more substantial oversight function. The British Polling Council should adopt a collaborative approach, involving both industry and independent representation. In taking on this expanded role, it will clearly need to work closely with other regulatory stakeholders in this area, including the MRS, IPSO, IMPRESS, the Society of Editors and Ofcom.
  • The British Polling Council should develop its 'Journalist's Guide to Opinion Polls' to include guidance on the types of information that should be included within articles that report on polls.
  • The British Polling Council should develop a programme of training opportunities for journalists on how to read, interpret and report on polling data. It would be helpful if this guidance could be produced as part of a collaborative approach in conjunction with the Market Research Society, IPSO, IMPRESS, the Society of Editors, Ofcom, the Royal Statistical Society and academics.
  • Where relevant, the British Polling Council should make public any examples they find of particularly poor practices of media reporting on polls. The polling companies themselves should also be encouraged to state publicly where they think their polls have been misused or misreported.
  • The British Polling Council and Market Research Society should identify and report instances of bad reporting of polling to IPSO, IMPRESS or Ofcom as appropriate. Such cases should then be investigated and dealt with quickly through the existing regulatory systems for the media.
  • The Electoral Commission should take on an enhanced role in monitoring voting intention polling conducted and published during the regulated periods which precede UK elections. In particular, there should be a requirement for the details of all published voting intention polls to be declared to the Electoral Commission, regardless of who the poll was commissioned by, what its purpose was, or how much it cost. The Electoral Commission should then publish the details relating to the sources of funding for such polls.
  • Evidence received by the Committee on the use of social media to influence political debate adversely was deeply concerning. Governments, regulators and the platforms themselves are on the 'back foot' on many of these issues and have been too slow to address the spread of misinformation and the manipulation of political information on social media platforms. These issues warrant serious and concerted investigation, and the Government should urgently conduct further research into this issue. The Government should also ensure that the challenges posed by digital media are tackled as part of its Digital Charter.

Further information

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