In the coming weeks, consultants running European political campaigns should be prepared for some major changes. The political pressure has been growing for online platforms to update their practices for elections ads—both the European Commission and the advertising industry have actively been calling for increased transparency of ad spending and searchable registers of political ad messages.
As a result, we are now seeing the likes of Facebook and Google starting to roll up their sleeves and tighten up their rules. If you are running political ads in Europe, here are a few things your organisation should be doing:
Get up to speed on how the EU is fighting disinformation
Professionals working in this space need to be particularly aware of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, published in October 2018. This Code sets out that all advertisements “should be clearly distinguishable from editorial content” and “public disclosure of political advertising” should be enabled.
Its signatories include companies such as Google and Facebook, which are expected to deliver on their commitments over the course of this year. Should these companies fail to deliver satisfactory results, the European Commission is threatening to step in with enforceable action. Hence the rush to alter the rules.
The stakes are undoubtedly high given the approaching European Parliament elections in May, and bearing in mind the past scandals of targeted political advertising carried out by Cambridge Analytica in the U.S. and Aggregate IQ in the context of the “Leave” campaign in the U.K. Citizens and regulators are increasingly aware of translucent messages being able to cloud and shape one’s judgment and ultimately electoral decisions. This is also an opportunity to increase trust and credibility in political communications, parties, and electoral candidates.
Some indication of the upcoming actions can be found in the progress report of the EU Code of Practice issued in December 2018. The success rate of the online platforms will be determined by looking at the number of ads properly labeled as political advertising as a percentage of overall political ads, and the number of political ads taken down for failure to comply with transparency guidelines.
Taking it a step further, the UK Electoral Commission and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) have called for an immediate ban on online political advertising until the relevant parties and campaigns can agree the appropriate rules. However, rest assured this is not very likely to happen.
Understand how the main platforms are adapting to changes
Google and Facebook have quickly rolled out a few initiatives seeking inspiration from developments that have already taken place in the United States. The former has announced that from March onwards, all ads in the EU featuring a political party, current elected officeholder, or candidate for the EU Parliament will need to be verified.
Google is also giving political organisations in Europe free “Protect Your Election” cybersecurity tools to combat online attacks and disruption. Similarly, ads related to politics or issues of national importance that appear on Facebook or Instagram should include a disclaimer that shows the name of the person or entity that paid for the ad. They may also be stored in an archive for a period of up to 7 years.
Distinguish the fine line between political and non-political advertising
What is not certain currently is whether only adverts for political candidates or adverts promoting certain political goals, otherwise known as issue-based advertising, will fall within the scope of the new rules. Note that at this point, promotional merchandise like t-shirts and EU Parliament campaigns are excluded on Google.
For the most up-to-date rules concerning political advertising on these online platforms, be sure to refer to their most recent policy declarations.
Protect your client from financial sanctions
Finally, if you are working for a European political party funded by the EU, you are probably familiar with the amendment to existing EU legislation that would make it possible to impose financial sanctions for breaching data protection rules in order to deliberately influence the outcome of the European elections—something that may result in political parties exercising more caution in their social media activities.
If you are a consultant preparing adverts for political clients, it is essential to see whether the online platform you are utilising has a policy in place regarding election/political advertising.
It is also important to note whether the ads in question feature entities that are classified as “election/political advertising” by the online platform in question. Non-compliance with the rules of the online platforms can lead to those ads being taken down, unpleasant media coverage for your campaign or organisation, and financial sanctions in the case of European political parties breaching data protection rules.
Sofia Karttunen works as European Affairs Officer at European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA). She holds a Bachelor of Laws degree (LL.B.) and a Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) in European Public Law and Governance. Previously, she has worked in the European Parliament and a political think tank in Brussels.