In Greta Thunberg’s apocalyptic YouTube video, the Swedish climate activist shows vivid imagery of the Martian landscape, climaxing with an apocalyptic message: only the top 1% of the world’s population may be able to relocate to the red planet after Earth succumbs to climate change. The other 99% will perish. 

This provocative video could be labeled as a political advertisement and become subject to strict regulation under a proposed new European regulation. Tech companies are aghast. Free expression advocates also are concerned — even though they believe that YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter must be transparent about how they target voters. Late last year, a number of civil society organizations published a letter warning that the proposal “dangerously mischaracterizes the mere expression of political ideas and civic engagement as political advertising.” 

Pressure to crack down on online political advertising stems from the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. The UK political data analytics company harvested private information from millions of Facebook users to influence political campaigns, most notably the 2016 US presidential election campaign and the 2016 UK Brexit Referendum. The stolen data was used to create psychological profiles of voters and to target them with advertising. 

Although the scandal prompted revulsion on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, with politicians on both the left and right calling for tech companies to limit the diffusion of personal data, little action was taken. Facebook and YouTube kept allowing political advertisements. Twitter banned them in 2019, only to see new owner Elon Musk reverse course.  

The US requires parties and candidates to publish disclaimers on their websites and in emails but has done little to regulate political advertising on social media, even though these ads play an increasingly important role in campaigns. Each platform sets its own rules. 

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Such self-regulation is too weak for Europeans. The original European Commission proposal would require platforms to identify political ads, disclose their sponsor, and release a “transparency notice” including the ad’s funding, targets, and reach. The European Parliament strengthened these transparency measures and banned non-EU groups from sponsoring political advertisements. 

Reactions are mixed. Political campaign strategists fear that the proposed restrictions remain too onerous. “What about a paid campaign from an NGO encouraging citizens to vote for parties that make climate a priority in their manifestos?,” asks Sebastián Rodríguez. “What about other similar expressions of political ideas and civic engagement from a civil society organization or a campaign group? And what about a private citizen expressing their views on social media?” 

But civil society activists think the regulations do not go far enough, particularly in corralling tech algorithms. “Big tech’s algorithms excel at discovering hidden patterns in the users’ behavior and inferring personal data that they have not willingly nor consciously revealed, including traits that expose their vulnerabilities or political leanings,” worry civil society activists Karolina Iwańska and Fernando Hortal Foronda. They call for a ban on the use of inferred and observed personal data and automated ad delivery techniques in political advertising as “a necessary step to protect electoral processes in the EU from undue influence.” 

Greta Thunberg’s Martian tourism video could come within scope due to its commentary on climate change. She might have to create a transparency notice about its target audience — the restrictions might mean that the video does not reach the intended audience.  

Time is pressing. Policymakers want to adopt a final text in time for the 2024 European parliamentary elections.  

Bill Echikson is a non-resident Senior Fellow at CEPA and edits Bandwidth. Romy Hermans is a Brussels-based intern with the Digital Innovation Initiative. 

Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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