Understanding the Elephant: Considering UK Electoral Reform in Light of the US Experience


Recent elections in the US and the UK have brought into sharp focus the opportunities for electoral misconduct provided by cheap, ubiquitous, and largely unregulated digital media. In each country, domestic and foreign actors engaged in online campaigns to spread propaganda, disinformation and "fake news" through social media accounts. Inflammatory, divisive, and outright false information was pushed into the online ecosystems of unsuspecting end users through microtargeted advertisements, fraudulent accounts, and bot networks. Such tactics continue to be used, and both US and UK intelligence services warn that the problem is getting worse. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are now reckoning with just how unsuited current campaign and political party finance rules are to deal with online electioneering. But this reckoning has been hobbled by a lack of robust comparative work. Assumptions about "First Amendment Exceptionalism"—the belief that US campaign finance law is simply too much of an outlier to warrant serious comparative consideration—are potent and stymie UK interest in the US system. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, these concerns are exaggerated.2 The First Amendment has shaped the parameters of US campaign finance regulation, but much of the complexity of the US scheme derives less from its unique approach to political expression, than from foundational challenges common to all nations that value both free speech and fair elections. The US Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment certainly has restrained US responses to these challenges, but it did not create them.