Online political advertising and democracies: friends or foes?

22 March 2021 /

5 min

About 80% of Europeans are on Facebook, but only 6 in 10 countries worldwide have restrictions in place regarding political advertising. At the European level, the Commission has announced it will produce a law proposal by the end of April. But what exactly is at stake?

“Europe’s tech sector is coming of age. Europe has all the potential to be a global leader in the next wave of digital transformation” Ursula von der Leyen, speech at the 2020 Lisbon Web Summit

Along with the European Green Deal, one main priority of the European Commission for 2019-2024 is “to make the EU fit for a digital age”.  COVID-19 has heightened the necessity of digital services, as well as for their regulation. During the pandemic, political campaigns had to move online and make themselves known in the digital sphere. Online, however, there are fewer rules.

Growing online political advertising

Political campaigns are essential for parties to inform and influence citizens about their candidates and political options. Campaigning in the digital space is, however, nothing new. Barack Obama was the first political candidate to really take advantage of social media advertising in 2008.  More than 10 years later, we have become used to engaging with our favourite candidates using Twitter or other platforms. Besides, conventional forms of campaigning, such as door-to-door  engagement, TV debates are more expensive channels and therefore less inclusive.

With people spending more time on social media, online advertising came in handy for political communication, which  has the potential to reinforce the democratic process. First, it  increases political participation, by reaching out to alienated citizens, by drawing attention to non-traditionally covered issues and by  promoting a two-way communication venue where people can easily reach out to their candidates. Secondly, it is also an easy and cost-effective way for parties and candidates to reach out to their prospective voters, which is advantageous to smaller and new parties. In addition, it makes it easier for candidates to raise support through small contributions on the internet. 

Nevertheless, online political advertising presents numerous challenges to conventional regulations and democracy. First, there is the question of campaign finance and accountability. This is already a sensitive and highly regulated question for traditional political campaigning methods, which is heightened by the digital sphere. With online advertising, there is no certainty to who is behind the ad and how much they paid for it.

Secondly, online political ads increase the risk of disinformation – information that is deliberately false or misleading – and misinformation – information whose inaccuracy is unintentional. Examples of such are plenty, but one of the most prominent is when the “Vote Leave” Brexit campaign used Facebook data to target UK citizens, serving them false claims about the EU.

Thirdly, there is the danger of cybersecurity and targeted online advertising, also called microtargeting. The most prominent example of this is the notorious Cambridge Analytica – Facebook scandal that broke the news  in 2018  when The Guardian and The New York Times wrote about it. Cambridge Analytica accused of harvesting data of millions of Facebook users, sold their data for the purpose of targeting users with political ads and disinformation. Evidences showed it interfered during the  US Presidential election of 2016, and during the Brexit campaigns. Thus, raising the question of whether the outcomes of these elections would have been the same without the campaigners unfair practices. Not to mention,  these  situations pose serious challenges to our right to privacy, self-determination and, in the long-run the quality of our democracy.

The EU’s strategy to regulate the online sphere 

“Democracy cannot be taken for granted; it needs to be nurtured and protected. (…) We need to update the rules to harness the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.” Věra Jourová, Vice-President for Values and Transparency

In traditional media, political campaigns are widely regulated by electoral laws. However, when it comes to online ads, regulation becomes more difficult. At the moment, there is no single EU level definition of online political advertising, nor any regulation that aims specifically to regulate campaigning in the online sphere. The definition of what is an online political ad has been delegated to the social media platform, but this is about to change.

The Netherlands has become the first country in the EU to address online political advertising, with political parties and social platforms agreeing voluntarily on a Code of Conduct towards election transparency and disinformation. In this Code, drafted by International IDEA, the signatories “agree to be transparent about the sender, costs and reach of advertisements during election campaigns” and “political parties promise not to post misleading messages or accept foreign funding for advertising”. 

At the moment, the EU has two regulations that touch upon this question: the General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR) that applies to all actors in the electoral context, but does not contain special provisions on political campaigning or microtargeting; and the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, that was signed by the social media platforms and that is a key element in countering disinformation in Europe.

Online advertising is about to be specifically tackled by the EU, namely with the Digital Services Act and the European Democracy Action Plan. The first aims at ensuring a safe and accountable online environment in the EU, by rebalancing the responsibility of users, platforms and public authorities according to the European values. It regulates both digital marketing and issues-based advertising, complementing the GDPR. The second, is designed to empower citizens and build more resilient democracies across the EU, by promoting free and fair elections, ensuring transparency of online advertising, strengthening media freedom, and countering disinformation. 

The EU wants to become a frontrunner in setting regulation for the digital sphere, and it is now taking it to the next level with the Digital Services Act. Surely, it can have a great impact on the online political discourse. However, the responsibility of fighting the spread of disinformation also comes down to social media users and citizens. 

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