Tighter rules are needed to control online “dark ads” ahead of next year’s Scottish Parliament election, campaigners say.
Organisations including the Electoral Reform Society insist greater transparency is needed around online campaign material to make it clear who has produced the advert.
From December 7, all political campaign material must bear an “imprint” which explicitly states who is backing it.
However online ads are only required to have an “imprint” in the initial post, meaning it could be lost when the video or picture is shared by other users.
Kyle Taylor, director of Fair Vote UK, said: “This loophole means the efficacy of the digital imprints is severely limited.
“Transparency information on campaign videos could ‘disappear’ the moment someone downloads and reshares it.
“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.”
Fair Vote UK, which campaigns for more transparency in election rules, said it has been told by the Scottish Government that only “covering communications” for online videos need to have an imprint.
The response it received from the Government said: “The Electoral Commission will be monitoring how digital imprints are used at the May Scottish Parliament elections and if there is obvious abuse of the imprint requirements then we will consider tightening up the regulations for future elections.
“This is an evolving area where we expect to have to regularly update the legislation to take account of developments in technology.”
Willie Sullivan, director of the 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.”
The group has written to Constitution Secretary Michael Russell asking him to review the issue before the new rules come into effect.
A Scottish government spokesman said: “We have led the way on digital imprints, introducing regulation of digital materials for the 2021 Scottish Parliament Election – the first such regulation for a UK election – to ensure that all online materials, including videos, can be traced to source.
“If an election video contains text, or appears within material containing text, there must now be an imprint unless the person sharing the video is covered by the exemption for people expressing their personal opinion.
“This legislation will be kept under review, and we will respond to the letter in due course.”
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