Thursday

18th Jul 2019

Opinion

Inconvenient Facebook truths ahead of EU election

  • Facebook's new policy creates a major barrier to the exercise of both EU electoral rights (which are by definition pan-EU) and free movement rights (such as cross-border advertising) (Photo: Spencer E Holtaway)

After revelations on how third countries and unidentified organisations sponsored targeted content during the 2016 Brexit referendum, Facebook has put in place new rules for political advertisement in all EU member states.

Under these new rules, paid political content is only allowed in the country where the ad buyer is based in.

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While this might make sense in the United States, such an approach is not fit for purpose in a jurisdiction like Europe, which is made of 28 countries.

As a result of those rules, EU political parties are prevented from using Facebook, Facebook Messenger and lnstagram for their EU-wide paid communication campaigns.

These new rules affect not only EU political parties, but also the EU institutions themselves as well as hundreds of not-for-profit organisations and citizens movements currently running get-out-to-vote campaigns across the continent.

In other words, any European organisation whose members and constituency extend beyond one country is put at the same level as foreign entities attempting to interfere in the EU elections.

In so doing, Facebook denies the pan-European dimension of the European elections that stems from our unique EU-wide constitutional arrangement.

Facebook's new policy creates a major barrier to the exercise of both EU electoral rights (which are by definition pan-EU) and free movement rights (such as cross-border advertising).

What is worse is that Facebook new policy also fails to make the European elections more secure.

Indeed, any influencer – be it inside or outside of the EU – who wants to sway the EU elections can still buy political ads at the national level and reach out all Europeans.

This is deeply troubling, all the more so less than 30 days ahead of the European elections.

This story unveils three disturbing, inconvenient truths.

First, the European Union, like any other governmental authority, is highly dependent on Facebook and similar platforms to reach out to the public.

The Facebook network ecosystem – made of Messenger, Instagram as well as WhatsApp – emerges as an inescapable infrastructure for governments when discharging their own prerogatives.

These range from organising the vote, informing the public about their electoral rights, and mobilise citizens to vote.

In other words, the EU, its governments and political parties need Facebook to do their job.

Second, while this should ring an alarm bell to any government and political candidate ahead of the European elections, they all seem deaf to such a call.

Today any policymaker faces an inherent conflict of interest insofar as she is expected to govern Facebook while being reliant on it to get re-elected.

Who sets the rules?

The third inconvenient truth is that it's Facebook – not our governments – to set the rules of the democratic game.

It is Facebook that defines what qualifies as a political ad, and who may promote it.

And, again, it is Facebook that police those self-imposed rules, acting as a gate-keeper to its network infrastructure, but without being subject to a corresponding public scrutiny. In sum, in the absence of any regulation, Facebook is acting a de facto regulator of European public discourse ahead and beyond the next European elections.

Yet Facebook's license to govern itself and our societies is not, as a matter of fact, the inevitable result of impersonal forces such as globalisation or automation.

Rather it stems from a deliberate political choice made by our political representatives to let them self-regulate their operation, regardless of the manifest externalities of their action.

I can't imagine a more challenging yet needed task for the incoming members of the European Parliament to take up.

Author bio

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU law and founder of The Good Lobby.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

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