Recent elections have illustrated how digital communications technologies, like social media, are transforming election campaigns and political advertising. Beyond the opportunities and challenges these tools offer to those looking to have their voices heard during an election campaign, social media appear to be challenging traditional models of election finance policy, which look to regulate advertising through spending caps. Social media, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, have the potential to disrupt this traditional approach to election finance by disseminating political messages to thousands, even millions, of voters at low or no cost. For countries, like Canada and the United Kingdom, that have chosen to enforce spending limits on advertising in order to promote election fairness and integrity, the rise of social media risks undermining the objectives that spending limits were designed to promote.
This paper addresses this challenge by looking at the regulation of third parties in Canada and the United Kingdom. Third parties (or independent parties) include persons or groups, other than a political candidate, registered political party, or constituency association, who participate in elections. The paper will set out how social media are regulated in national elections for both countries. This will be followed by an analysis of how social media have been employed in recent elections to establish possible weaknesses of current regulations. From here, the paper will consider regulation options for third party advertising that move beyond a spending model. Because the regulation of election advertising frequently triggers legal questions regarding freedom of expression, particular attention will be given to relevant case law in Canada and the United Kingdom, in order to account for policy options that are not just capable of promoting election integrity, but are also constitutionally feasible. By looking at the regulation of social media by third parties in Canada and the United Kingdom, the paper will help to address the larger challenge of how election management boards can adapt to new technologies and tools in election campaigning so as to maintain and promote election integrity.