A new report published today by Transparency International identifies critical risks to the integrity of political financing posed by online advertising and makes five recommendations to policymakers worldwide.
Online political advertising is rapidly growing around the world and will soon be the biggest media expenditure for political campaigns in the US and UK. Over US$3 billion is estimated to have been spent on online ads in the 2020 US general election.
Particularly when combined with micro-targeting methods, political disinformation campaigns spread through online advertising can create a powerful effect on public debate and elections, out of sight of watchdogs and regulators. Yet legislation lags far behind reality. The IDEA Political Finance Database shows that by 2018, only 25 out of 122 countries set limits in spending or other restrictions on online media advertising.
“Online advertising has potential to radically level the political playing field, giving new or less affluent politicians and groups a chance to be heard. However, unless governments and platforms themselves update regulatory frameworks soon, online advertising could open the floodgates to obscure political financing, disinformation, and polarised public debate. To protect democracies, regulations must hold platforms accountable for the authenticity of political messaging online, require stricter financial transparency, and restrict microtargeting to its minimum,” said Jorge Valladares, Research and Policy Expert on Political Integrity at Transparency International and an author of the report.
Examples of national legislation reviewed by Transparency International from Czech Republic, Lithuania and New Zealand show how regulations and platforms’ transparency policies often fall short and leave loopholes that can be exploited to hide the financing of political advertising. In the United States, federal legislation to increase political advertising transparency has been stalled until recently, leaving cities and states to regulate online political advertising. The European Commission will propose legislation on the transparency of sponsored political content in 2021. Other regions still lag further behind.
Transparency International recommends that policymakers worldwide move quickly to:
1. Bring regulation into the digital era.
Legal definitions of political advertising must swiftly be brought up to date, to define responsibilities over content, financing and the placement of online political ads.
2. Ensure authentic political messaging.
Only legally authorised advertisers should place political ads. Political actors must conduct online activity through official accounts in their own name and register them with oversight agencies. Online platforms must verify their identity.
3. Hold platforms accountable for ad transparency.
Voters must be able to easily distinguish paid and user-generated content. Platforms must publicly disclose information at both ad and aggregated levels, with infringements penalised.
4. Raise the bar for financial reporting.
Political actors must report itemised expenditures on online platforms to oversight agencies, who cross-check it with the online platforms’ own disclosures and take corrective action on potential infringements.
5. Restrict microtargeting and enhance standards for trading personal data.
Regulators, platforms and advertisers must restrict political ad microtargeting to basic geographical criteria. Further safeguards for democratic public debate are needed. Users’ meaningful consent to the collection and commercialisation of their personal information must correspond to a genuine understanding of the economic and political value of their choice.
For full recommendations, please see the report: Paying for views: Solving Transparency and Accountability Risks in Online Political Advertising
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