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Exchange of practices regarding the understanding, regulation and oversight of online political advertising and microtargeting

July 06, 2020 • By Thomas Heinmaa
Image Credit: Geralt,

International IDEA organized a series of roundtables, between 15 and 24 June 2020, on online political advertising and microtargeting, together with the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and the European Commission. Online political advertising and microtargeting is attracting increasing attention from governments and citizens alike, with many examining whether more regulation and oversight is needed, and what form it can take. Notably, the use of digital microtargeting, in which parties analyse mass amounts of personal data to target messages at specific groups, fundamentally changes how parties operate campaigns and communicate with the public.

You can consult the full report with links to background resources here. For the programme of the roundtables, see here.

The 2016 US Presidential elections and Cambridge Analytica scandal in the UK following the EU membership referendum brought the significance of new campaigning techniques to light. International IDEA’s 2018 Political Party Innovation Primer on Digital Microtargeting provides examples of how political parties internationally have used legitimate microtargeting practices in their campaigns.  

The goal of the events was to advance the understanding of rules and oversight of online political advertising and microtargeting in ensuring safe and fair elections. The events also aimed to build on the conclusions of a roundtable on addressing microtargeting in election campaigns co-organized by International IDEA and the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations in June 2019.

Key reflections include:

  • Online microtargeting is rooted in the use and potential abuse of mass amounts of personal data to send countless messages to thousands of different audiences, creating an accountability gap.
  • There are important benefits in the use of online advertising and microtargeting for parties, as it can facilitate more effective campaigning and help newcomers. Parties can attract attention at a low cost through social media, and moreover can access new ways of activating people, such as through grassroots fundraising initiatives.
  • Three principles guide national efforts to address online political advertising: i) respect for the right to freedom of expression and to uphold the value of political advertising for democracy; ii) balancing the voter’s right to receive information with their right to privacy; and iii) maintaining free and fair elections that are not captured by any narrow interests.
  • Regulatory gaps are widening, including unclear definitions for terms, insufficient platform self-regulation, fragmented responsibility between agencies, and sometimes poorly resourced oversight agencies.
  • Participants felt the need for coordination at the international level, but less clear is the appropriate division of roles/competencies at the national and international levels. Amongst event participants a preference emerged for party-related regulations to remain at the national level, while the cross-border nature of online platforms creates the need for cooperation.
  • Transparency is recommended both for the use of data and targeting: People should know why they are being targeted, who is targeting them, and how much money parties, candidates, and other relevant parties invested into online advertising.
  • Participating experts also recommended to “restore the human scale” to online advertising to reduce complexity, helping enable a proportionate accountability system. This goal could be achieved through mandatory limits on the amount and type of data that can be used for targeting.
  • The EU is playing, and will continue to play, a leading role in the regulation of data protection with respect for the freedom of political speech. On top of the GDPR, the EU has established a Code of Practice on Disinformation and is currently preparing a new Digital Services Act and EU Democracy Action Plan.
  • NGOs and academia can help to fill information gaps through independent research and by providing citizens with tools to gain insight on how their personal data has been used.

It is recommended that regulators, oversight agencies, researchers and international organizations direct their efforts towards and invest more in:

  • Inter-agency collaboration to address the challenges emerging from oversight responsibilities that are often widely distributed amongst various oversight bodies.
  • International cooperation between regulators and oversight agencies to address issues related to the cross-border effects of online advertising and microtargeting, as well as to improve cooperation with online platforms on regulation and co-regulation.
  • Research on the impact of online advertising and microtargeting to better understand the need for further regulation in this area.
  • Sharing of guidance and tools to increase stakeholder awareness and understanding, which is often still limited.

About the authors

Thomas Heinmaa
Research Assistant
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