EU to crack down on targeted social media ads

EU intends to usher in stricter rules on social media microtargeting — including tougher barriers for advertisers outside of the bloc to buy political ads aimed at residents of EU member states

Cambridge Analytica came to symbolise the predatory potential of targeted social ads (photo: DW)
Cambridge Analytica came to symbolise the predatory potential of targeted social ads (photo: DW)


Back in 2008, Barack Obama successfully deployed microtargeted social media adverts, which use personal data to precision-aim messaging at specific groups of voters, in his campaign for the presidency of the United States.
Use of the marketing technique increased in the years after and ultimately gained notoriety among the wider public thanks to Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy that assisted Donald Trump in his successful 2016 US presidential campaign. It later emerged that the company had harvested data from tens of millions of Facebook profiles.

Microtargeted political ads would no longer be allowed in the EU under a deal agreed to on Monday by negotiators representing the Council of the European Union, which brings together governmental ministers from the member states, and the European Parliament.

Preventing hidden influence

Their agreement paves the way for a new law stipulating that personal data can only be collected if users have expressly consented for it to be used for political advertising. Data that allow advertisers to build profiles based on ethnicity, political views or sexual orientation are to be completely excluded from collection, according to official press releases from the council and the European Parliament. The law still needs to be formally approved before it comes into force.

Martin Emmer, a professor with the Institute for Media and Communication Studies at the Free University of Berlin, told DW that the new rules wouldn't completely spell the end of microtargeting. Emmer said microtargeting was an important tool for political parties to reach voters over social media. The regulations are mainly about preventing hidden influence, Emmer said, including advertising in which people receive "messages tailored to their life situation in such a way that it is no longer possible to recognize any party ideology."

Under the rules, political adverts would have to be clearly labeled and users will be able to find out who is behind them. The idea is to build up a publicly viewable archive of political adverts.

An 'information war'

The rules are also intended to reduce the influence of non-EU countries on elections held within the bloc. Three months before polls or referendums in the European Union, the financing of adverts from third countries would be restricted, according to a press release from the European Parliament.

In Germany, for example, the rules could prohibit voters of Turkish heritage from being targeted on behalf of Turkish politicians.

Though Russia wasn't mentioned explicitly, attempts to rein in the Kremlin's influence are also likely behind the rules. The European Commission has repeatedly warned of Russian interference in recent years.

Emmer doubts that the rules would deter actors who are intent on waging an "information war." However, he said, the rules would give the European Union and its member states more control over such advertising. Emmer also welcomed the introduction of an archive to allow researchers to probe the effectiveness of the measures.

Most of the regulations won't come into force in time for the June 2024 elections to the European Parliament. An 18-month transition period is planned — beginning as soon as the legislature and EU member states give their official approval.

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Published: 09 Nov 2023, 11:20 AM