Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Facebook and the European Elections: Overzealous or Uninformed?

Guest Blogger

New Controversies in Intermediary Liability Law

Amélie P. Heldt

In late March 2019, Facebook announced it would tighten up its rules for political advertisement and is now – once again – under attack for getting it wrong. The attempt of the world’s largest social media platform to protect the E.U. elections from foreign interference is effectively restricting European candidates to their country of residence.

The network infrastructure is particularly suited to spread (mis)information, which makes the problem of so-called “fake news” on social media platforms hard to solve. Recent work shows how the attention economy relies on content that provokes strong emotions, and that it benefits from the data generated through user engagement to optimize behavioral advertisement. (See, for example, recent publications from Zuboff, Crockett, Benkler et al., Ghosh and Scott.) It is more likely that controversial content will be algorithmically prioritized in a user’s newsfeed, including both viral content and false information that was designed and spread with the intention to mislead the recipient. Plus, the distribution of misinformation can be amplified by buying targeted advertisement space, just like with any other digital marketing campaign. This mix can become quite explosive, even more when it comes to disinformation in periods of election campaigns. The accompanying effects can be threatening for democracy if fake news posts are realistic enough to be believed and if the exposure to them is high. Since Brexit and the U.S. presidential campaigns in 2016, the use of social media marketing for political purposes has become more common but the way it operates remain opaque. The dimension of this issue was revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018, which got Facebook into a pretty pickle.

In an effort to fix mistakes of the past and to counter allegations it would not live up to its responsibilities, Facebook published its new rules for political advertisement in the European Union two months ahead of the election days. The two main novelties are that advertisers need to be “authorized in their country to run ads related to the European Parliamentary elections,” and that “all ads related to politics and issues on Facebook and Instagram in the EU must be clearly labeled.” With the latter, Facebook is implementing a transparency-enhancing tool that experts have been demanding for a long time. At the same time it makes Facebook the de facto arbitrator over what is political speech and what is not. It also does not solve the problem of adapting political communication to potential voter profiles. More urgent, however, is the problem with the first rule, which is designed to be “a real barrier for anyone thinking of using Facebook to interfere in an election from outside of a country.” However, these elections are pan-European, and so are the campaigns.

This shows that Facebook struggles with the E.U. elections, not fully considering the actual circumstances. The problem with authorizing advertisers only in their countries is that it restricts the candidates considerably in their sphere of action. The parliamentary groups within the European Parliament are composed of delegations from Member States but each belonging to the same political family. Thus, their campaigns run both on a national and a supra-national level. For example, Manfred Weber, top candidate for the European People’s Party (the largest political group in the European Parliament) and the potential next president of the European Commission, can only campaign in Germany as a member of his German party. It also means that European parties and candidates are treated as “foreign interference” by Facebook, clearly missing on the whole rationale of the European Union and its parliamentary elections (and the E.U. single market).

As reported, the most senior E.U. civil servants believe that failing to recognize the role of pan-European political parties and institutions “would encroach upon fundamental EU rights and freedoms, such as free movement and political participation.” In this letter they also complained about Facebook preventing the E.U. institutions from calling on citizens to vote. (Ironically, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s head of global policy and communication, is a former British MP who should be familiar with the functioning of E.U. elections.) The representatives of eight political groups followed suit, with this open letter to Mark Zuckerberg. So far, it remains unclear if Facebook will grant only single exceptions or thoroughly change its rules. Both politicians and institutions depend on social media to reach voters that are spread out in different countries, hence not reachable by classic means like election posters. The whole electoral process is based on a free flow of information, enabling the formation of opinions. An inherent part of citizens’ electoral rights is their freedom of information, which is currently hindered by Facebook’s new policy. Just a few weeks ahead of the elections, it seems unreal that the campaigns would be seriously disrupted and it shows, once again, the immense power of Facebook over not only individual communication but also the public discourse.

Amélie P. Heldt is a junior researcher and doctoral candidate with the Leibniz Institute for Media Research, Hamburg, and currently a Visiting Fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. You can reach her by e-mail at

Older Posts
Newer Posts