Tech & Rights

EU elections unveiled: Who tries to influence your vote on Facebook?

An Evidence-Based Analysis in Six EU Member States On ​Electoral Integrity and Political Microtargeting.

by Megan Kirkwood

The Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties), in partnership with six organisations representing Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Germany, France and Spain, is investigating how targeted political advertising may impact democratic discourse, potentially leading to information silos and polarisation.

The investigation will focus on political advertising in the upcoming June European Parliament elections. During the election campaign period we will collect data donated by users who voluntarily download Who Targets Me, a desktop browser extension providing users with information on who is targeting them with political ads. By tracking political adverts on Meta's Facebook Ad Library and users' donated data, we can scrutinise whether political actors follow national campaigning rules and wider data protection rules, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). We can also scrutinise platforms like Meta, which must abide the GDPR, as well as new rules like the Digital Services Act (DSA). Although the regulation on the Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising (TTPA) will not be fully in force for these elections, there are a set of guidelines that Big Tech companies should follow to comply with the DSA, which includes many of the TTPA’s provisions.

Why Meta?

Meta, the second-largest digital advertising platform globally, has long been the preferred advertising platform for political actors in Europe. For various countries, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, France and Spain, Facebook is the top platform of choice for consuming news and media according to the 2023 Digital News Report by Reuters. For Germany, it is the third most favoured app where people get their news. Beyond the appeal of popularity, Meta allows for more granular targeting, unlike Google, which only allows targeting based on geographic location; age; gender; and contextual targeting like using topic keywords against sites, apps, pages and videos. While political advertisers are not allowed to use Meta's detailed targeting option, political advertisers can create custom audiences by linking website or app traffic or directly uploading customer lists to Meta. Political advertisers can also target lookalike audiences, which use information such as demographics, interests and behaviours from the source audience to reach more people. Targeting in this way relies on masses of data, sometimes personal and even sensitive data, to identify user demographics and behaviours. This enters a legal (dark)grey zone. If a citizen's personal data is being used for targeting, at a minimum they must provide explicit and freely given consent under the GDPR. We suspect that most of the time this is not the case.

On top of this, Meta also has a track record of incorrectly filtering political ads. A study by AI Forensics recently found that Meta's moderation system catches less than 5% of undeclared political ads. This means it is likely that advertisers who attempt to use detailed targeting will get away with breaking the rules. Even if they don't, existing tools allow advertisers to employ microtargeting, which is when political advertising is tailored to specific users, in an attempt to sway voters. Our investigation will only include ads correctly labelled as political and examine the extensive microtargeting methods that Meta legitimately allows on Facebook.

Why does this matter?

This approach to targeting has adverse consequences, particularly close to elections. Political advertising is most effective with undecided voters, so-called swing voters, targeting them with specific messages which can contain contradictory electoral promises. Liberties, in partnership with European Partnership for Democracy, has spoken out against the dangers of information silos and contradictory campaign targeting, looking at real examples across the EU. This poses a threat to democracy, which relies on citizens having access to accurate information so they are informed when engaging with politics.

Our project will monitor whether politicians exploit targeting options on Meta and comply with national campaign laws during the European Parliament elections. This is important because politicians from various countries have been found to skirt rules by using predatory methods to sway votes in their favour. This undermines democratic processes, a prerequisite for free and fair elections.

Additionally, we will be monitoring whether Meta meets regulatory requirements. Though TTPA will not yet be in effect, we will compare the EU campaign to TTPA rules to give further recommendations regarding the TTPA and the regulation of political advertising more generally. We will also watch Meta's compliance with the DSA, particularly Articles 34-35 regarding risk assessment and mitigation focusing on the risk mitigation guidelines published by the European Commission and how closely Meta adopts those measures. Meta must comply with the law,

particularly laws that make online spaces safer and protect citizens' fundamental rights.

Partner organisations:

Bulgaria - Bulgarian Helsinki Committee

France - VoxPublic

Hungary - Hungarian Civil Liberties Union

Germany - Reset

Poland - Responsible Politics Foundation

Spain - Xnet

Technical partner - Who Targets Me

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