Political campaigning and the dangers of social media

A recent operational compliance case by the Charity Commission involving Oxfam highlights the importance for charities to think about their campaigning and whether it crosses into political campaigning and the dangers of social media.

The Commission became involved following complaints they received on two separate issues:

1. An advert in the national press backed by some social media communications in relation to the ending of the blockade in Gaza; and

2. A tweet sent from the charity’s Twitter account.

The Commission’s main concerns were whether the advert was political activity undertaken in furtherance of Oxfam’s charitable purposes and whether the tweet sought to influence public opinion in a party political sense.

Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake in furtherance of their purposes. However, such activities must be within the legal and regulatory framework for charities.

Political campaigning

Whilst the poster and media communications were political activities, the Commission was satisfied it was undertaken in the context of supporting the delivery of Oxfam’s charitable purposes, it supported the needs of their beneficiaries and was within the scope of the Commission’s Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity.

Social media

The Commission accepted that the charity had no intention to act in a party political way but concluded that the charity should have done more to avoid any misperception of political bias by providing greater clarity. The Commission appreciated that tweets by nature are short. Nevertheless, the Commission gave a clear warning that consideration must always be given as to how such communications might be perceived when received in isolation.

This is a great caution to charities who do use social media and is particularly pertinent in the run up to the election. Charities must be wary that even if their intention is not to act politically, they must consider how the social media message will be interpreted and whether there is a risk the charity may be seen as political which could give rise to complaints and an investigation by the Charity Commission.

The impact of the Commission’s involvement

The charity revised its governance framework for campaigning activity, including codifying policies and procedures into one document and updated its authorisation procedure for approval of specific campaigns and associated communications.

It is interesting to note that the charity updated it policies and procedures taking into account the additional requirements of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014. This may be of consideration for charities who have not yet reviewed their policies in light of this new Act.

Finally, trustees need to have clear oversight of the campaigning work of their charities and must be familiar with and have regard to the relevant guidance which includes:

• CC9 ‘Speaking Out’

• Guidance on Charities, Elections, and Referendums

• Electoral Commission guidance for non-party campaigners

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