With political advertising increasingly taking place online, the question of regulation is becoming inescapable. However, the current lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a political advertisement online is a significant impediment to this process. Junyan Zhu identifies three key questions regulators must confront to devise an effective framework.
The rapid surge of online political advertising in recent years has introduced a new dimension to election campaigns. Concerns have arisen regarding the potential consequences of this practice on democracy, including data privacy, voter manipulation, misinformation, and accountability issues.
Several countries, including Canada and France, have drafted or implemented regulations for this practice. British and European policymakers have been working towards enhancing transparency in online political advertising and establishing regulatory oversight.
In the UK, the Elections Act 2022 has extended the imprint rules from print election material to certain kinds of digital material including paid political adverts, mandating disclosure details about the producers and funders of the content. Meanwhile, the European Commission have put forth proposals to address transparency and targeting issues associated with online political advertising.
The definition conundrum
But what exactly is an online political advert? Have you ever wondered whether certain content you encountered online qualifies as a political advert? A good example that comes to mind is the Labour Party’s viral and controversial Twitter post about Rishi Sunak. Was this an example of an advert? It wasn’t paid for, it was a simple social media post, so does it count?
This kind of question is hard to answer, and indeed, reports show that 37 per cent of respondents in the 2021 Eurobarometer Survey couldn’t easily determine whether online content was a political advertisement or not. As of now, only a few platform companies, including Facebook and Google, have defined in their own terms what constitutes this form of content. Many regulators are only beginning to explore this concept. With no precise criteria for categorising content as an online political advert it becomes difficult to determine what exactly should be regulated, let alone how.
Many regulators are only beginning to explore this concept.
The European Commission has stated that “[f]ragmented definitions of political advertising across Member States pose challenges when it comes to establishing whether advertising qualifies as political.” With the goal of standardising the currently heterogenous national requirements and procedures, the recently proposed legislation introduces a new definition of political advertising and creates obligations on providers and publishers. These proposals are still under discussion with the European Council.
To address the conceptual challenges faced by policymakers, in our latest paper, we conducted interviews with 19 experts from regulatory bodies, professional advertising associations, and civil society organisations engaged in discussions surrounding online political advertising in both the United Kingdom and the European Union. Our primary objective was to shed light on alternative approaches to defining key concepts. We delved into the policymakers’ perspectives, seeking to distil their understanding of what constitutes an “advert”, “online” platforms, and “political” content. Instead of crafting new definitions, we pinpointed these alternative factors and illustrated them through a sequence of decision trees. This endeavour aims to help both scholars and practitioners comprehend the various choices that could impact the potential definition of online political advertising. Specifically, our work led us to pose three questions that regulators need to confront:
What does it mean for content to be considered an “advert”?
In our interviews, when we inquired about the criteria for identifying an advert, a consistent key point that emerged was payment. The central idea revolves around whether payment is involved in content distribution or creation, and it also depends on the timing of the payment. Some interviewees also acknowledged the increasingly blurred boundaries between paid and unpaid content. There are organic ways of spreading material that don’t involve payment, such as an unpaid tweet. These differences matter as they suggest alternative criteria for determining what should or should not count as an advert.
What does it mean for an advert to be “online”?
This turned out to be the most challenging question for our interviewees. One idea is to determine this through certain types of media, such as websites, televisions, and mobiles, as these are the platforms on which online political advertising is evident. Another notion that emerged during the interviews was the distinguishing characteristics of online advertising. Online advertising appears to have a greater reach than offline media, an unprecedented speed, higher capacities for online targeting, and the low cost of online advertising, all of which serve as distinctive attributes. However, several interviewees questioned the necessity of isolating online content as a distinct phenomenon, stating they “make no distinction between online and offline” in practice. There are therefore further criteria that must be determined to define the scope of this activity,
What does it mean for an advert to be “political”?
Our interviewees first discussed the significance of specific contexts, explaining that political advertising could be distinguished by references to elections, activities in formal political institutions, or the wider public sphere. A second criterion mentioned is determining whether the advert is placed by specific actors, such as political parties, candidates, or civil servants. A third potential criterion is the goal of advertising – determining whether the responsible actor has political goals or if the advertising content itself holds political intentions.
Taken together, our interviews revealed a number of different criteria that could be used to define online political adverts. They show that the process of producing a definition is an incredibly complex yet vital task for policymaking. In our research, we map these criteria to show how practitioners perceive the task of definition formation, the approaches they consider viable, and the challenges they must overcome to establish widely accepted criteria. We assert that the process of conceptualising online political adverts holds significant importance. It represents the pivotal first step towards overcoming the obstacles that impede the progress of policymaking. As one of our interviewees aptly stated, “If you can’t distinguish it, you can’t regulate it.”
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Policy & Internet.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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