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Digital Microtargeting – Challenges for European Regulators

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Digital microtargeting—the use of personal data to isolate the interests, demographics and personal connections of voters—is increasingly used by political parties in election campaigns to influence the voting intentions of an electorate. Digital microtargeting fundamentally changes how political parties communicate with the electorate in a way that is not open to public scrutiny, which has placed the monitoring and regulation of digital microtargeting in election campaigns firmly on the public agenda for European regulators.

The United Kingdom’s European Union (EU) membership referendum campaigns and the United States presidential election campaign in 2016 illustrated how new online campaigning techniques are being used. International IDEA’s primer on Digital Microtargeting from 2018 provides examples of how political parties around the world have used legitimate microtargeting practices in their campaigns. Beyond the UK’s EU membership referendum and the US presidential election, digital microtargeting has increasingly been adopted as a strategy by political parties elsewhere in Europe. New political parties rose to power in recent elections in France and Italy, with the strategic use of digital microtargeting and personalised communications integral to their success.

Against this backdrop, International IDEA organized a roundtable on the use of digital microtargeting by political parties in elections, on 12 June 2019, in The Hague. The participants came from data protection agencies in EU member states, the European Commission, civil society and academia.

Why Regulators are Concerned

Digital microtargeting is changing the ground on which elections are fought. Traditional campaign methods relied on reported and public behaviour of politicians, whereas digital methods focus on private individual behaviour, often without the consent of those whose data is used to target them. The hidden nature of online, highly targeted campaigning diminishes the opportunity for public scrutiny and increases the potential for echo chambers, entrenching polarised political views.

Political digital microtargeting is not necessarily an entirely negative force. It offers opportunities for political parties to be more efficient in their campaigning efforts, such as reducing their financial costs. This is particularly true for small and emerging parties.

The EU is one of the leading entities globally on the regulation of individual personal data. The recent EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) stipulates that data owners must ensure that appropriate technical and organizational measures exist to guarantee data protection principles. The GDPR covers many of the data protection issues related to digital microtargeting in election campaigns, but loopholes still exist.

Who and What Should We Regulate? 

The roundtable participants discussed the following regulatory approaches and made the following points: to protect individual privacy, working within the rules established by the GDPR rather than to attempt new legislation would be most effective. Clarifying how GDPR can and should be enforced and monitored in relation to political digital microtargeting, and what tools it equips agencies with, will likely be invaluable for effective regulation. Electoral laws should be updated to account for digital technologies, particularly financial reporting. No single solution would satisfy the context and legal framework of all countries; however a common set of principles could go some way to satisfy this. 

Furthermore, some participants pointed out that online political advertising is complicated, since no agreed-upon definition of what a political advertisement or message is, exists. Politics is in part about influencing, but drawing the line between information intended to influence and information intended to mislead has become necessary. Regulators do not necessarily have the authority to make this distinction. Attempting to explicitly regulate the content of advertisements is not a viable solution.

Additionally, self-regulation can potentially be simpler, faster and more flexible than developing and passing new legislation. It may also help to keep social media companies involved in developing new and innovative solutions. Social media platforms may favour effective self-regulation, particularly in countries they perceive as being profitable to them, or in contexts that would be damaging to their reputation. Self-regulation cannot replace legal regulation: a balance is to be struck between mandated regulation and promoting self-regulation.

The purpose of data brokers—the many companies that help political parties collect and segment data, before using them to disseminate messages via social media—are largely missing from many regulatory discussions, and more concernedly, can potentially fall outside any regulation. Data brokers are particularly important to the discussion of digital microtargeting in election campaigns as political parties often lack the knowledge and expertise to conduct targeted and specific advertising themselves. Data brokers often offer their services to clients in other countries, creating difficulties for regulation and oversight. How these companies operate is still poorly understood, and how to effectively apply GDPR to their activities—particularly their use of mass amounts of individual data to infer data without direct consent—is still not well known.

Looking Forward 

The regulation of political digital microtargeting may need to be balanced between managing identified challenges and avoiding over-regulation. Encouraging transparency, understanding existing regulations, such as the GDPR, and promoting measures to hold political parties accountable may be a good starting point.

Encouraging self-regulatory measures among platforms, building on the current voluntary EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, already signed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla would be useful. A regulatory framework outlining clear expectations for social media platforms and political parties would make it easier to hold them accountable in the future. Regulators may want to consider encouraging market uptake of tools that can help citizens understand why they are seeing certain advertisements, particularly by increasing public disclosure of political advertisements. The media can use these tools and play a role in publicising violations of personal data use, as has already been observed in its use of Facebook’s online advertisement archive.

Given international differences in political culture, the impact of microtargeting, and the oversight capacity across countries, it is not possible to regulate internationally through a one-size-fits-all regulation. The EU may therefore play a role in setting minimal standards, including for oversight capacity.  

Regulating in this area is a relatively new process. While definitive definitions and solutions are still lacking, what is known is that regulatory agencies need sufficient funding, enforcement capability, legal expertise, and technical knowledge to hold social media providers and political parties accountable for their microtargeting behaviours.

About the authors

Oliver Joseph
Oliver Joseph
Adviser, Elections
Thomas Heinmaa
Research Assistant
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