[This statement has been lightly edited to help it read as a blog post, but is largely as originally written and delivered. Part of the context here is that the Belgian parliament is considering a range of options, including a ban, for dealing with online political ads. Another part was that the French election was imminent.]
We’ll start by discussing the use of political ads.
It is very easy to look at the United States and worry about what unrestricted political advertising will do to democracy. Look at Trump! Look at the money they spend! Look how negative they are!
But political ads can also serve useful purposes.
Firstly, digital political ads allow campaigns to reach people directly. In countries that restrict political advertising, campaigns need their message to be carried and mediated through friendly relationships with the press. Where there is a broad range of media from a wide range of political persuasions, or a strong commitment to neutrality, this may be acceptable. But this is not always the case, nor is it permanent, particularly as the influence of traditional media wanes.
We should therefore recognise that preventing campaigns from running ads is not neutral or the return to a perfect historical state. A ban on political advertising is a choice about how ideas are presented to voters.
Second, as ads get cheaper, they become accessible to new campaigns. This allows more groups to find and reach potential supporters. Cheap, accessible political communication is a good thing for democracy. It encourages diversity and ensures a wider range of ideas is heard. This may mean more ideas we don’t like, but we really should resist limits on advertising for this reason.
Third, people frequently assume political ads are for persuading undecided voters – for better or for worse. This is only partially true. More often, they’re motivating the already persuaded, either to turn out and vote, or to give financial or voluntary support to a campaign.
When you restrict political advertising, you restrict the ability of campaigners to engage supporters in new, different ways. It makes it harder to raise donations, get volunteers and ask people to promote a message they agree with. This is a healthy form of campaigning, where voters are active participants, taking a stake in campaigns they support.
Fourth, political advertising allows new campaigns to overcome some of the disadvantages of challenging incumbents. When you ban political advertising, you further increase the advantage of people who have already been elected, have larger followings and therefore get more reach online.
For example, when Twitter banned political ads in 2019, they saved themselves lots of the PR problems political ads were causing the major platforms at the time. But they also locked in the fact that then-President Trump would have much larger online reach than Joe Biden. Even now, the Biden Twitter account has fewer than half the followers Trump did when he was finally banned from Twitter in early 2021.
Taking these four things together, political ads allow campaigns to cheaply and directly reach voters in an unmediated way. They increase the range of voices able to take part, and allow them to promote a wider range of messages. Lastly, they can help equalise competition by giving challengers a greater voice against incumbents.
In our view therefore that, when used responsibly, political ads can play a useful role.
I want to turn now to the proposal under consideration – banning online political ads to match up with the way TV, radio and print ads are treated.
Belgium wouldn’t be the first country to try this. Let’s look at three well-known examples.
The first is France, where political ads are banned for the 6 months before an election.
As with the Twitter example, by banning them, the French system hands those with an existing voice – such as the current President and Marine Le Pen advantage. Macron has 8 million Twitter followers. Le Pen has 2.7 million. But on the other hand, Valerie Pecresse, who is currently polling fourth, has only 23,000 – a huge, insurmountable disadvantage to her usefully communicating on the platform.
It’s also very obvious that, despite having no ads, France suffers from decreasing political engagement and increasing political fragmentation. French political culture is not in a particularly healthy state. An ad ban has not changed this.
The second country to look at is the US, which allows (by comparison to anywhere else), unlimited political advertising on any medium. Every cycle, elections cost more and more money and more and more outrageous things are said. Political advertising is protected by, among other things, the First Amendment, weak electoral regulation and disinterested politicians.
We all saw what happened on January 6th last year. We all fear what will happen if Trump decides to run in 2024. American politics is deeply, worryingly polarised. Like in France, it is not in a healthy state.
The third country is the UK, which, like Belgium, allows digital political ads, but bans them on TV and radio. They formed nearly 20% of the money spent by parties during the 2019 election campaign. Parties and candidates love using them.
At the same time, political instability has been the norm since the 2016 Brexit referendum. The country is still split on the question and the current Prime Minister is very unpopular for a broad range of reasons. Like in France and the US, British politics is very polarised and unhealthy.
The big tech era has coincided with a long period of poor health for many democracies. The relative decline of TV, radio and newspapers and the loss of shared narrative, the seemingly unstoppable rise of disinformation and misinformation on the internet – intertwines with many other things, such as the difficulty many governments have found in creating a meaningful programme, social cohesion and broad wealth after the end of the cold war in the 1990s and economic crisis of 2008.
The point we make is perhaps an obvious one – the crisis of democracy is much bigger than just the role of big tech – but many people do treat them as one and the same.
The last few weeks have reminded us of some of the promise of social media after years of deserved backlash. In Ukraine, social media has helped us witness events in a way that would have been impossible 20 years ago. At the same time, the Russian government has shut down these channels out of fear people will hear the truth about the war. As we look at ways to regulate the internet, we must try to embody the best instincts of an open society.
We want to turn now to explain how, instead of banning digital political ads, we can more sensibly manage the risks they pose.
The first risk to manage is of campaign ads carrying lies, without any fact checking. This is true, but the alternatives – making platforms vet ads or setting up a regulator to do it – is worse. The best solution is one we know well. We must use transparency to ensure political opponents, the media and civil society are able to rebut lies in advertising and hold liars accountable.
The second risk is of unknown actors – from at home or abroad – engaging in political debates without declaring who they are. We saw this with the Russian meddling in the US election in 2016, but there have been numerous examples. Again, transparency and strong verification of political advertisers to ensure they are who they say they are largely solves this problem.
The third risk is the difficulty people have distinguishing online ads from other content. By mixing together ads and organic content and giving them the same design and features, platforms incentivise ads that drive engagement above competing values such as truth and trustworthiness. Good regulation would ensure ads are clearly labelled and social features such as liking, commenting and sharing are removed.
The final risk to highlight is of “microtargeted” ads reaching tiny groups of people with perfectly tailored messages. Done responsibly, you can see how this can increase political engagement, particularly among minorities and other marginalised groups. But it can also be misused, to target in a discriminatory way and to suppress political activity and engagement.
In each case, rules requiring radical transparency from political advertisers and the platforms carrying their ads would reduce the risk.
Transparency means we must always be able to see the content of the ad, the amount and source of the money spent on it, and verified information about the name and nature of the advertiser running the ads. To aid transparency, services accepting political advertising should run excellent ad libraries, full of comprehensive information about the ads running. They should also show the due diligence they’ve done on the advertisers buying them.
At the same time, we should write rules to improve accountability.
The primary problem here is there are simply too many ads.
In Belgium, in the last 30 days, on Facebook alone, more than 1000 advertisers spent over 700,000 euro on more than 5000 political and issue ads. There are no election campaigns currently taking place, yet advertising activity is very high.
Regulation can simplify things. Electoral advertisers should work within quotas for the raw number of ads they can run at once. This may sound unorthodox, but is actually the digital equivalent of the way media regulators ensure balanced airtime on TV and radio.
By reducing the number of ads and ensuring radical transparency for ads and advertisers, it becomes easier to scrutinise them and harder for advertisers to “hide” lies among hundreds or thousands of ads. It also disincentivises campaigners from collecting larger volumes of voter data for targeting purposes, thus reducing their ability microtarget ads to any dangerous extent.
A well-balanced regulation would do all this without creating any other special mechanisms for political advertising – such as bans, enforced fact checking or limiting targeting options (this last one is demanded by the EU’s DSA and forthcoming Political Ad Regulation).
To recap and conclude:
Political advertising is a tool. It has good and bad features, but it is an exaggeration to blame it excessively for democratic decline. Used well, political advertising can inform and engage people, whereas banning it strengthens incumbency, while reducing diversity and the range of ideas on offer. Instead, the focus of legislation should be on reducing the impact of bad actors and bad ads, through radical transparency and greater accountability.
It is possible to have safe, trustworthy online political advertising. The choice about whether to ban or not ban them is a false one.
Instead, the question should be about how well we can regulate to manage risk, and make political ads safer for democracy.