The French presidential election campaign has been another example of a run for the best political advertising. Not the only one. Also, some other past ones—such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump—confirmed that political advertising must be regulated. As we have seen in the case of communication and disinformation, misleading targeted messages can also negatively affect democratic principles.
In November 2021, the European Commission tabled a proposal for a regulation on the transparency and targeting of political advertising. The regulation shall place harmonized rules for more transparency of political advertising to facilitate the sector’s internal market.
The digital transformation of democracy has created new threats to maintaining the integrity of elections and free democratic processes. For example, some of these problems include manipulation, fragmentation of the public debate, and disinformation. In the European Parliament, we aim at improving the Commission’s text.
What is going on?
Transparency is at core of this regulation. Anyway, the proposal points out that specific limits are needed to reduce the scope of problematic targeting tactics. The objective is that people could easily distinguish when they are being displayed paid political content. In my opinion, targeting individuals based on their personal data and personality, including their behavior, needs to be banned.
In any case, paid political advertising should be labeled as such and provide basic information about the identity of the sponsor, dissemination period, amount spent, links to the elections, source of the funds used, and other information useful to achieve fairness of the dissemination of political ads.
When a disinformation campaign is well funded, disinformation spreads successfully. To fight such amplification, we need to introduce transparency rules on Internet advertisers and targeting processes. Without that, disinformation rabbit holes are deepened, where users put on their eye flaps and can only read material that entrenches their disillusionment about the world and strengthens them in their view of the world.
Another problem pose anonymous accounts on social networks, paid by political parties. This is currently escaping all controls on political advertising funding, and that is why we need to focus on that as well.
The goal of big tech will always be profit
Big Tech platforms' business models have played a crucial role in amplifying these vulnerabilities. Through the collection, extraction, and use of people’s personal data, microtargeting is used to reach voters with tailored messages to exploit their sensitivities and fragment the political public debate. This has not only had an impact on electoral processes but also on people’s fundamental rights, notably freedom of expression, right to make political decisions, and voting rights.
We need to ban surveillance advertising which relies on sensitive personal data and monitor financial flows, so that it is not possible to simply fund a disinformation campaign. Official debates in the European Parliament have started in January 2022 and the aim is that this new set of rules are implemented by Spring 2023.