Politicians have different ways of reaching out to their electorate. While the streets, radio or television used to be the main communication channels, nowadays most political advertising happens on social media platforms.
Political actors, such as political parties, entities connected to such political parties, candidates for public office or members of government, can use social media users’ personal data to send highly personalized messages in support of a particular candidate or policy proposal. These targeted messages can be vehicles to mislead, manipulate, discriminate against or demobilize voters.This is because targeted advertisements can be used to promise different things to different people. Promising to deliver certain policies, such as a reduction on fuel prices, may work to convince car drivers; for citizens who are more concerned about climate change, the same political actor may promise investments in renewables. Instead of enriching political debate, this creates echo chambers, where individuals encounter information that reflect their own, thus reinforcing their opinion and increasing polarization.
Reaction of EU lawmakers
Since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, European lawmakers have been looking for ways to prevent malign actors from compromising fair elections. While political advertising offline is already regulated by many national electoral codes and advertising legislations, the online space has recently become an open field for political advertisers. Now, the General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) and the Digital Services Act (DSA) are two major laws that aim to create a safer digital space, where our fundamental rights are protected.
In November 2021 the Commission proposed a Regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising to complement the GDPR and the DSA. This proposal has a lot of positive elements. It suggests a common definition for political advertising among all EU Member States, advocates strict transparency requirements for political advertisers, recognizes the detrimental effects of targeting techniques and prohibits targeting and amplification techniques that rely on sensitive data, such as sexual orientation or health data.
However, there are several shortcomings. The proposal treats civil society organizations (CSOs) as equally to political parties, giving populist authoritarian leaders a legal tool to arbitrarily restrict their work. It also does not go far enough to ban targeted political ads. The limitation on sensitive data is not enough, and the exemption under Article 12 (2) makes it even weaker. Further, the law does not provide meaningful oversight and enforcement.
Setting up proper safeguards: our suggestions
The Commission may have missed an opportunity to set up effective safeguards, but this can be rectified; the legislative process is still long. In our new policy paper we provide suggestions on how to regulate political ads in the EU. In a nutshell, they are:
- 1. Scope. CSOs are different from political actors, as they do not aspire to obtain political office. The scope of the Regulation should exclude CSOs that conduct certain activities, such as legislative or regulatory process. Their work is to inform citizens and mobilize the public to demand respect for their rights.
- 2. Transparency. To ensure meaningful transparency, the Regulation should require real-time transparency. It should also assign competent authorities with providing cross-platform ad databases that contain detailed information on spending, publishing, targeting and delivery criteria of all political ads.
- 3. Targeting and amplification. Targeted online political advertising, in particular opaque targeting and amplification techniques, can have harmful effects on democracies. Political advertisers should only be allowed to use strictly necessary data, i.e. language in multilingual areas and constituencies. Any possibility of targeting people based on sensitive data must be eliminated.
- 4. Access to data. The Regulation should impose a duty on both authorities and political actors to respond to CSOs, journalists, and vetted researchers’ questions, similarly to freedom of information requests.