Why new EU rules for political advertising are important

Digital technologies have brought big changes to online political advertising that could – if unregulated – harm people’s democratic rights.

Political advertising, offline or online, plays a key role in influencing perceptions of political systems, elected leaders and opinions, especially before elections.

In recent years, electoral campaigning has been transformed by digital technologies and social media that offer political actors massive reach at low cost.

While this has the potential of enabling more voices to be heard, new technologies have been misused to spread false information, fragment political debate and manipulate voters.

Exploitation of technological possibilities

The increasing possibilities and challenges of big data play a key role. When people use social media platforms and other digital service providers, these can collect personal data. The harvested data can be used to define users’ preferences, lifestyles and interests, and enable micro-targeting.

Technology and data enable malicious actors to use micro-targeting to reach out to different groups, tailoring the message specifically to them. In many cases, this means targeting their fears and frustrations, often using disinformation.

Micro-targeting can also contribute to the creation of online echo chambers where people are exposed to only one type of information, distorting their perception of public discourse.

The processing of sensitive personal data for advertising practices such as micro-targeting has been found to affect people’s rights, including freedom of opinion; access to objective, transparent and pluralistic information; andtheir ability to make political decisions.

Transparency about the origin of the advertisements

People can also be misled about who is behind content. For example, something that looks like neutral information might in fact be sponsored by an entity from a different country trying to influence elections.

Cross-border reach and lack of harmonised rules

Those who do not exploit such practices could be at a disadvantage, harming fairness and equal opportunities, especially during elections.

While online and offline advertising are cross-border, there is no EU-wide legislation in this area.

Traditional rules may be ineffective, as they are often hard to enforce when applied online, where new technologies and tools create opportunities to influence and target voters.

New EU rules on political advertising

To help create a safer, fairer digital sphere, the European Parliament adopted the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act in 2022.

In February 2023, the Parliament supported a proposal for complementary rules aiming to prevent abusive political advertising, online and offline. Parliament’s negotiators aim to reach an agreement on the rules with EU countries in time for the 2024 European elections.

In the debate before the vote, Sandro Gozi  (Renew, France), who shepherded the proposal through Parliament, said: “We want more transparency, we want better protection against disinformation and foreign interference, we want a true, genuine single market of political advertising.”

Sanna Sebastiano

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