Sunday

25th Jul 2021

Opinion

EU's opportunity to curb online politics ads

  • At the turn of the century, previously frugal European parties discovered that whoever holds the largest campaign budget is most likely to win elections (Photo: European Commission)

The EU's European Democracy Action Plan and its upcoming Digital Services Act aim to regulate online political advertisements.

That debate fixates on voter privacy, not least because the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has shown to be a powerful force in this area.

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However, much larger threats are at stake in the realm of democracy, such as fair elections and equal political competition.

Beyond privacy, the EU should equalise political party access to online ads and improve the oversight of digital campaigning. It can borrow from how governments have curbed big money in politics.

Online political advertising first gained notoriety in 2016.

In that year, Cambridge Analytica's misuse of voter data helped tip the UK toward Brexit, while Facebook ads delivered Donald Trump his presidency.

In both cases, massive amounts of online personal data were used for political campaigns, collected often unbeknownst to users from social media.

Since then, parties in many established democracies have adopted similar techniques, gathering large datasets, segmenting them into detailed voter profiles, and targeting them with tailored messages via social media.

Especially populist parties have increasingly used online advertisements with stunning success.

The Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and the far-right and left in Spain have managed to reach disengaged voters using big data and targeted ads.

The coronavirus crisis has sent digital advertisement soaring even further.

While governments were fixing offline voting procedures by introducing postal voting and sanitised polling stations, political parties invested massively in their online presence.

In the US, the bedrock of online political advertising, Covid-19 tripled spending on digital advertisements compared to 2016.

Privacy and democracy

Political advertising is not just affecting privacy. Although it has the potential to increase interaction with voters, the surge in online ads poses serious risks to democracy.

First, citizens may start to disconnect from politics when they notice that they are addressed by a computer algorithm or a bot, instead of an actual politician.

Second, elections can lose credibility when electoral commissions struggle to oversee the complex technologies that distribute online ads.

Third, fair competition between political parties suffers when the parties holding the largest access to voter data gain an unfair electoral advantage in communicating with voters.

And lastly, society at large loses when democracy becomes collateral damage of the highly-successful business model of online platforms

Apart from affecting human rights, all these examples change especially the game of politics and elections. Therefore, while data protection rules remain a weapon to win the battle for citizen privacy, the EU should fight the threats to democracy with another calibre of tools. It can borrow from measures developed since the early 2000s to combat big money in politics.

At the turn of the century, previously frugal European parties discovered that whoever holds the largest campaign budget is most likely to win elections.

As a result, in many European countries money came to control politics instead of politics controlling money. This dynamic paved the way for campaign finance scandals involving political bigwigs from Helmut Kohl and Nicolas Sarkozy to Silvio Berlusconi.

Like big money then, big data and online campaigning are now changing the face of politics and threatening trust in democracy.

And like then, regulators are trailing behind due to the opacity and complexity of it all. In the case of campaign finance, policy makers ultimately caught up.

Transparency laws were made, donation limits introduced, and public funding awarded to decrease parties' reliance on private money. Similarly, lawmakers now need to consider transparency rules, limits, bans and incentives to curb big data in politics.

The EU, known globally as the great equaliser of economies and societies, is ideally placed to drive this process.

First, in order to regain citizen trust in politics, the EU can regulate the use of algorithms. It can demonstrate to voters why, when and how they are being targeted online.

Second, to strengthen elections, the EU can help national supervisors to build the capacity to monitor ads, and it can coordinate between oversight bodies internationally.

Third, to level the playing field between European political parties, the EU can impose spending limits and request that parties disclose how much they spend on online advertising.

The EU can also support civil society to monitor the use of big data by political parties, and to undertake public action when online ads pose threats to elections.

And finally, to counter big tech dominance over politics, the EU can regulate online ad algorithms and legislate how social media obtains and sells big data.

Although big data - like big money - has entered politics for good, it can be held to account much better than it is today.

The EU should use the opportunity of its Digital Services Act and Democracy Action Plan to avoid the long road of political finance.

Disclaimer

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

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