Monday

25th Jan 2021

Opinion

Why am I not seeing this ad?

  • Defining political ads is extremely difficult because political ads online are constantly changing in form and shape (Photo: portal gda)

Why am I seeing this ad? The question is simple - but the answer is still opaque.

It has been some time since Cambridge Analytica shook up the world of political advertising, but its ghost still haunts electoral authorities in EU member states and the European Commission alike.

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As it should, considering the mechanisms that allowed for such political manipulation to happen are still in place. As the EU is looking to regulate social media platforms, the question remains how to deal with political ads.

While political ads broadcasted on TV are visible to anyone tuning in to that particular channel, online political ads are often only visible to a homogenous group of people who were targeted with such an ad.

As a result, anyone - including foreign actors, can engage in political campaigning without being detected and without being subject to the same transparency requirements as offline political campaigning.

Such opacity creates an avenue for unchecked big money interference in campaigning and political influence online. The micro-targeting of narrow, homogenous groups of people with very specific messages that exploit their vulnerabilities, makes it easier than ever to distort political debate, pushing people deeper into their echo chambers and stimulating single-issue voting.

The European Commission has been under pressure to hold tech giants to account on political ads.

The self-regulatory Code of Practice against Disinformation largely failed to bring meaningful transparency, with ad libraries rife false negatives and false positives.

Today, different solutions are on the table.

The European Democracy Action Plan consultation enquired about different ways of limiting political micro-targeting, while the Digital Services Act consultation sought to gather working definitions of political ads.

In parallel, a number of EU member states - including the Netherlands and Ireland - are revisiting their national regulatory framework around political campaigning to adapt it to the new reality of online campaigning.

Yet all of these discussions run into the same fundamental problem of defining political advertising in a way that remains relevant over time and does not create loopholes or place unnecessary restrictions on the many fringe cases.

Defining political ads is extremely difficult because political ads online are constantly changing in form and shape.

In February 2020, for instance, the then-presidential candidate for the US Michael Bloomberg caused an outcry when he paid social media influencers to post comedic memes about him to promote his campaign, thereby circumventing the transparency requirements his own ads are subjected to.

Where it is social media influencers, proxies, fake NGOs and foreign organisations placing problematic political ads online today, we don't know what paid political messages will look like in the future.

In addition, any definition will be limited as there will always be fringe cases.

Blanket definitions

For instance, when Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream develop new flavours with political names like Cherry Garcia, does this count as political advertising?

Or what if a CSO targets you with a call to action on climate change? To guard the inherently contested boundaries of the political, oversight actors like regulators, journalists and CSOs need to be able to see all ads.

In order to identify and properly regulate those ads that qualify as political ads, we need to switch the default to full transparency of all ads, including commercial and issue ads, established in mandatory all-ad public libraries.

Any definition of political advertising that does not go alongside blanket transparency (and thus public scrutiny) of all ads will be problematic, because it won't be capable of overseeing and adapting to the numerous fringe cases and new forms of political ads that will undoubtedly arise.

Transparency of all ads is thus a necessary precondition for any further regulation on political ads, whether it is limitations to political micro-targeting or the maximum amount spent on political ads.

Only when the platforms can meaningfully answer the question of why we're seeing a particular ad - be it political, issue-based or commercial - will the European Commission and EU member states be in a position to properly regulate political ads.

Author bio

Jan Pieter Balkenende is the former prime minister of the Netherlands, and member of the Club de Madrid and European Partnership for Democracy.

Disclaimer

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

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