In order to gain insight into what kinds of online advertising methods were used, Liberties, in partnership with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Lakmusz.hu, and Who Targets Me, conducted research examining how Hungarian political parties and their affiliated actors targeted audiences with tailored political ads on the social media platform Facebook, run by Meta, during the campaign period leading up to the April 2022 parliamentary elections.
The research is based on the analysis of 28,506 ad impressions taken from anonymized data that 1,860 Hungarian Facebook users donated through a downloaded browser extension, developed by the Who Targets Me group.
Given that 7.34 million Hungarians have a Facebook profile (out of a population of 9.7 million), the social media platform plays an outsized role for political actors to communicate with potential voters.
Targeted political ads undermine democracy
The report spells out several troubling practices around online political advertising and its corrosive impact on Hungarian democracy.
Although it is no longer possible to target people according to their sensitive data, such as political beliefs, sexual orientation, religion etc., since Meta disabled its ‘Detailed Targeting’ feature, similar effects can be achieved through alternative tactics. For example, Hungarian political parties and political actors were still able to put out targeted political ads by advertising directly to people they have data on (the “Customer List” option), custom audiences (e.g. those who like their page or engage with their videos) and lookalike audiences.
Liberties’ concerns are manifold. Firstly, from a transparency perspective, it is highly improbable that the necessary consent was given to use clients’ data for this purpose, meaning it isn’t GDPR-compliant. Secondly, tailoring information according to each audience results in checkered public knowledge around a politician’s intentions and leaves their electoral base open to manipulation. This runs the risk of creating bubbles in the society, each having different (and possibly conflicting) information, and strangles meaningful public debate.
Political ads targeted to male users
There are many concerns around the Hungarian elections, as already pointed out in expert analyses and other reports. For example, an important point of concern is the government’s exclusion of online political advertisements from political advertising rules and from campaign spending. As a result, journalists and citizens can only rely on Google’s and Meta’s transparency databases to understand how much money political actors spend on online political ad campaigns.
Liberties’ report highlights that in addition to the well-understood problems, there are additional concerns.
One of the most shocking findings, for example, is that ads by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán discussing Russia’s war in Ukraine targeted male Facebook users exclusively. It is wholly unacceptable for a political leader or aspiring public office holder to conceal messages of general interest from a particular gender or any other subgroup.
We believe some of the issues that weaken Hungarian democracy can be tackled through EU-level regulation, but the current draft regulation presented by the European Commission to regulate political ads is far from watertight.
For example, the ban on targeted online political advertising using sensitive data can be circumvented when data subjects consent to having their data processed. This undermines the ban, because platforms and websites use dark patterns to trick users into giving consent without understanding its implications.
EU should strengthen its proposed regulation
Given the human rights implications of targeted political ads, discontinuing these practices should not be left to Meta’s self-regulatory efforts. Liberties calls on the EU to strengthen its proposed Regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising to protect the fundamental principles of the bloc.
Liberties proposes the following recommendations:
1. Ban (fine-tuned) geolocation: Based on our findings, we believe that the Regulation ought to prohibit the use of targeting beyond language and constituency/geographical location for political actors.
2. Ban segmentation for politics: Political actors aspiring to public power should not be allowed to target by gender, age or any other individual characteristic beyond those that make it likely that the user belongs to the relevant constituency.
3. Ban lookalikes and customer lists: In the same manner, political advertising based on customer lists, custom audiences, and lookalike audiences should be disallowed in order to protect the fundamental rights of the users and encourage free and healthy public debate.
4. More transparency: More financial transparency is required from political advertisers, which is vital for the healthy functioning of the European Union and for democracy in the member states.
5. CSOs should be treated differently: We would like to emphasize that in order to ensure that they can fulfil their role in strengthening democracy, civil society organisations ought not be subjected to the same rules as political actors. Authoritarian governments such as Hungary may try to misuse such a regulation against critical CSOs.
Previously on Liberties:
Speechbag Podcast E05: Privacy, Propaganda And The Future Of Online Advertising
Targeted Political Ads Should Be Minimized: Policy Paper