Political advertising shapes public life, so it is imperative not only to understand its modalities, but also to put in place stronger transparency measures allowing the general public to easily recognize political ads by providing more effective labeling, committing to the disclosure of the sponsor, affiliated media and influencers, ad spending, and posting period.

The lack of transparency on political advertising is a widely unaddressed problem surrounding electoral campaigns around the world, especially with online platforms gaining increasing importance on their processes and outcomes.

In fact, a recent Eurobarometer survey showed that nearly four in ten Europeans were exposed to content that they could not easily discern as a political advertisement. So, what is direct and indirect political advertising, its impact and how can it be regulated to improve its transparency?

Political Advertising in simple words is defined as direct advertising displays in newspaper/magazine ads, social media platforms, billboards, signs, brochures, tabloids, flyers, letters, radio or TV, and other means of mass communication, used for the purpose of influencing directly in support or opposition in an election campaign.

This official Political Advertising term does not include other indirect means of Political Advertising such as public relations activities: favorable mentions or opposition in the news, feature articles, editorial stories, interviews, memes & cartons, comments in print or online newspapers and magazines, radio, TV, etc. Or other communication strategies such as affiliating with influencers, celebrities, or media.

Moreover, due to the weak regulatory framework that varies from country to country, and the fact that online advertisements have little to no restrictions, political actors have carte blanche to invest in political ads and disinformation content on social media platforms. While influencers, celebrities, or media affiliates are not required to include a message explaining who paid for the direct and indirect ads (the sponsor identification).

Further, the absence of specific laws on transparency for political advertising has caused many other critical issues such as the spread of disinformation, foreign and domestic electoral interference, the loss of democratic transparency and accountability, access to our personal data, etc.

The most notorious example is the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the United Kingdom where user data collected from Facebook in 2016 was sold to third parties without user consent. These third parties allegedly use the data to target voters with political advertising, which is partly responsible for Brexit.

Belgium has not been able to avoid the effects of political advertising either, as far-right political parties largely relied on social media platforms in the country’s 2019 elections. In Flanders, far-right Vlaams Belang won 18.5% of votes – a 12.6 point increase from its record in 2014, after focusing a huge part of its campaign budget on targetting mostly young, male voters on Facebook and other social media platforms.

EU institutions have been working on legislation to crack down on online political advertising and its effects on elections ahead of the European Parliament elections in 2024. Last June, The European Parliament released The 2022 Code of Practice on Disinformation in order to set a broader range of commitments and measures to counter online disinformation. This Code of Practice on Disinformation is a first-of-its-kind tool through which relevant players in the industry agreed – for the first time in 2018 – on self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation.

The new code would apply to actors outside the traditional political sphere, including influencers, NGOs and foundations. The proposal bans targeting and amplification of political ads using sensitive personal data as defined by GPDR, but with two exceptions.

The providers of politically-targeted ads would be able to use information about user’s personal data such as ethnic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs, or trade union membership firstly, if the individual has given explicit consent or secondly, if the user has regular contact with a foundation, association or other non-profits bodies.

Will this new code, once fully implemented, improve political advertising transparency? Let’s wait and see!


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