March 4. 2024. 4:47

The Daily

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The EU will deplatform political content and millions of citizens

Online communication can play a significant role in mobilising voters and engaging citizens ahead of the 2024 European elections, but the political ads regulation risks standing in the way of achieving a record voter turnout.

Sebastián Rodríguez is an expert on European political campaigns. He is writing this article in his personal capacity as a practitioner.

My passion for politics may have been triggered by a political ad on TV when I was very young. Most Spaniards might remember that same ad, dubbed the “Doberman ad”.

The ad was in black-and-white, used a high-pitched noise, and showed a rabid Doberman barking whilst videos of several opposition leaders appeared in the background. It represented the “black future” that awaited the country if the opposition won the election.

In my view, there were many things wrong with this ad, but it sparked a social conversation about whether or not the opposition was really that scary. On election day, many undecided voters ended up supporting the opposition party, which won for the first time since the establishment of democracy in Spain.

Today, organisations driving social change – including political parties, trade unions, Civil Society organisations, etc.- have gone through a process of professionalisation and digitalisation in how they run their communications, especially in the use of technologies and tools for advertising. The COVID-19 crisis accelerated this trend.

These organisations are able to run cost-efficient advocacy and awareness campaigns, reaching millions of those who would not otherwise be reached, using online political, social and issue-based ads.

A lot has changed since the “Doberman ad” was aired, but the fundamental principle of ensuring everyone’s freedom to express their own views remains the same.

There are, however, important considerations when these tools are used for political purposes, especially around voter manipulation, foreign interference and a lack of transparency. That is why the proposal to regulate political ads is welcome, but it should take into consideration the unintended consequences, especially for good-faith actors.

What falls under the “political ad” definition really matters

The “Doberman ad”, in its hypothetical online version, would clearly be tagged as a political ad: it is paid by a political actor with the intention of influencing the outcome of an election. It should, therefore, come under this EU regulation.

But what about a paid campaign from an NGO encouraging citizens to vote for parties that make climate a priority in their manifestos? What about other similar expressions of political ideas and civic engagement from a civil society organisation or a campaign group? And what about a private citizen expressing their views on social media?

The further away from the first example one goes, the more important a narrower definition becomes.

Furthermore, incorporating unpaid content, which can be generated by any individual, into the definition of political advertising poses a threat to the freedom of expression and could stifle civic discourse.

Unfortunately, the imprecise wording of the current definition would mean that any person or group expressing views about societal issues online, such as the ones above, would fall under this EU regulation, thus limiting their ability to play a significant role in mobilising different groups to go and vote.

Delivering political ads to viewers at scale is key to increasing voter turnout

If you like cycling to work in Brussels, chances are that you have joined online cycling communities and support measures to make roads safer. This is the reason why you’ll likely receive online political ads from your local candidate reminding you to vote in the upcoming local election and promising the creation of new bike lanes on Rue de la Loi.

This is, in other words, how online platforms use “recommender systems” to connect viewers with relevant content and do so at scale.

There seems to be an agreement in this Regulation that political content shouldn’t be subject to such recommender systems. That means that you, as a cyclist pro, would need to specifically look for the proposals that all your local candidates have on making roads safer, thus significantly reducing the chances that you come across that content or any content related to the local election. This, in turn, can negatively impact voter turnout.

In addition, the political ads regulation would make high-quality political content harder to discover, with no differentiation between clear political analysis and, in the worst case, conspiracy theories. If viewers are connected to content that is relevant to them, engaging and high-quality, they are less likely to veer off and consume low-level, problematic content.

“Better safe than sorry” is not a good principle in regulating free speech

The current Regulation requires online platforms to react within 48 hours to every user notice during the month before an election or referendum. With vast amounts of content online, it seems impossible for a post to be reviewed carefully within this short timeframe. In the run-up to a vote, a significant volume of legitimate content will be removed in the rush to comply with these rules.

The Regulation also obliges publishers of political advertisements to put in place a mechanism enabling individuals to notify them, free of charge, if a particular advertisement does not comply with the future regulation.

This is a rule that could be abused and manipulated by organised groups, both from inside and outside the EU, thus limiting free speech and stifling political debate. For example, political opponents could flag each other’s content online, turning the online spaces people depend on to obtain their information into void and barren places. The focus in our democracies must be on promoting a high-quality, informed debate, not creating legislation that pushes us towards a culture of fear of removal when expressing our views.

Eyes on 2024

In 2024, millions of citizens will participate in the European elections. Civil Society organisations, NGOs and public institutions will play a crucial role in engaging Europeans on the issues that matter the most. In doing so, these organisations will nudge citizens to the polls, which has a direct impact on increasing voter turnout.

Restricting the ability of these good-faith actors to convey their messages at scale and mobilise Europeans ahead of the election date is the unintended consequence that EU policymakers should try to avoid at all costs.