20th Jan 2021

Online election ad transparency in EU 'insufficient'

  • In 2019, only half of member states required transparency for paid political ads, and only a few had specific rules applying to social media

In the run-up to the 2019 EU election, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter scaled-up efforts to increase transparency in political advertising by detecting the abusive use of bots, taking down fake accounts or reducing advertising revenues for sources of disinformation.

However, the measures taken by online platforms during that election were "not sufficient," according to a new report published by the European Commission on Friday (19 June).

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"We witnessed the most digital European election campaigns ever - this brings new opportunities of political engagement for the citizens and the candidates, but also pose some challenges for free and fair elections," said EU commissioner for values and transparency, Vera Jourová.

"We all need to work together to ensure that laws are respected also online and that voters are not subject to unlawful manipulation techniques and disinformation," Jourová added.

In 2019, almost half of EU citizens relied on online news as their main source of information about the national and European elections - in which social media played a crucial part.

That is why the commission previously urged member states and political parties to make sure citizens were able to recognise paid political ads, the amount of money spent, its source and why it was targeted at them.

However, the report of the commission indicates that European "political parties did not generally undertake additional transparency activities such as listing their adverts, or disclosing their spending for online political adverts, on their websites".

According to a working paper of the commission, only half of member states required transparency for paid political ads, and only a few had specific rules applying to social media at the time.

Additionally, the commission's report reveals that not all the online platforms had a searchable database of political ads, these ad libraries were often incomplete and platforms did not give easy access to public authorities and researchers to exercise the oversight and analysis functions.

Facebook's requirements are particularly described as "problematic" since the social media giant changed its advertising rules one month before the elections - making it difficult for EU political parties to run EU-wide campaigns.

So far, the EU executive has not identified any large-scale covert interference operation in the 2019 elections from foreign actors, like Russia and China - recently identified by the commission as the main sources of disinformation in the EU.

Yet the report recognises the need to address both interference and manipulation efforts targeting elections and the democratic debate.

The upcoming European Democracy Action Plan aims to protect against foreign interference in elections taking place in the EU - as was reported to occur in the 2016 US elections and Brexit referendum.

Moreover, the commission aims to strengthen the rules applicable to European political parties and foundations - ahead of the next European elections in 2024.


Key takeaways from the European elections

European voters upset the status quo in the new European Parliament, breaking the monopoly of the mainstream centre-right and centre-left. Here are the key points from the 2019 vote.

2019 European election results

With 427 million possible voters, across 28 EU countries, electing 751 MEPs, it's the second-biggest democratic vote in the world. The results will come thick and fast - follow them here, via the European Parliament's official results site.


EU's opportunity to curb online politics ads

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.


Why am I not seeing this ad?

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.

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