Keep Thinking and Carry on - Online political campaigning in New Zealand

Blog Post by
Julie Haggie
Chief Executive Officer
Transparency International New Zealand

Think, ponder, evaluate, consider! New Zealand brains have had to run extra laps over the last while.

COVID-19 has smothered our political thinking space ahead of the election. Collective tiredness has made it harder to focus on important issues such as online political advertising because of the urgent and intense demand on critical thinking across many spheres of work.

But our work must continue. Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) is contributing a New Zealand centric report to a collaborative Transparency International (TI) project on online political advertising. This project also involves other chapters of TI, in Lithuania, UK, Kenya and the Czech Republic.

New Zealand's profile

Online Political Campaigning in New Zealand is a result of thorough and insightful research by lead Joshua Ferrer. We are grateful for his time, skill and forbearance. We are also grateful to the team at TI for their encouragement.

It became clear during the development of this paper that digital political advertising is a new frontier. Election campaign regulations in New Zealand have recently changed to enable the growth of digital advertising. Transparency remains an area of risk concern.

It is a rapidly evolving environment. In the last national election (2017) 64 per cent of New Zealanders used the internet for information about the election. Almost 19 per cent of all reported party expenditures for that election were for digital campaigning. We can expect to see an increase this year.

New Zealand has to date allowed digital providers to largely self-regulate on transparency. Their response has been variable. Regulatory bodies have insufficient enforcement or investigative power, including around post-election expense returns. Parliamentary Service funding of online political advertisements is opaque. In addition, 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 fettering free speech vital to democracy, and fighting against the promotion of untrue or misleading political advertisements. It is facing volume and resourcing pressure, which affects responsiveness.

Platforms such as Facebook or Google have also ramped up their efforts to shut down foreign adversaries, prevent social media hacks, and address astroturfing, or the spread of disinformation through robot accounts and paid participations. Real risks remain.

Weak disclosure laws

Weak disclosure laws mean that third party promoters - individuals or groups not directly contesting an election but that spend money to influence its outcome – can:

  • spend up to NZ$13,600 (US$8,980) without having to register with the Electoral Commission.
  • spend up to NZ$100,000 (US$66,000) without having to submit a post-election expense report.  
  • spend up to NZ$330,000 (US$217,800) for the election and NZ$330,000 (US$217,800) for each referendum, without disclosing funding sources.

Considering the wide reach of promoted Facebook and other social media advertisements from relatively small expenditures, there needs to be consideration of lowering these thresholds substantially, to reflect the new realities of online political advertising.

A lack of proactive enforcement powers means that the Electoral Commission is unable to monitor technology companies to ensure compliance with existing laws.  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.

The issues raised in this TINZ report on Online Political Campaigning in New Zealand, reflect the new ground being trod. We need measured consideration of new challenges to ensure voters are able to make choices without undue influence of money or misinformation.

Four recommendations

Based on the evidence provided by Ferrer, TINZ's four recommendations to increase the level of transparency and accountability of online political campaigning in New Zealand are:

  • 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 take the opportunity to not only maintain New Zealand’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.

Read our full Online Political Campaigning in New Zealand report here.

Joshua Ferrer is an American researcher who has studied at Oxford University, Amherst College (USA) and recently at the University of Otago as a Fulbright Graduate Student, completing his Master of Arts with Distinction in Politics at Otago University.  His thesis was ‘The effects of Proportional Representation on Election Lawmaking in Aotearoa’.  His research experience includes significant work on PR and election reforms, electoral systems, gun regulation, and the gun industry and the US state death penalty.  

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