The “dirty methods” of the Brexit referendum have been cited as a reason for new EU laws aimed at tackling disinformation and forcing online platforms including Facebook to publicly disclose the identity of people and entities funding political adverts.
Věra Jourová, a vice president of the European commission, said the EU rule-book needed to be updated to deal with on-line political campaigning, as she unveiled draft legislation at a press conference in Brussels.
The proposals would force on-line platforms to take greater responsibility for what they publish and ensure that consumers know why they are being targeted and by whom. The commission will also look at further restricting “micro-targeting and psychological profiling in the political context” through new regulatory codes and professional standards.
“We are convinced that people must know why they are seeing an ad, who paid for it, how much, what microtargeting criteria were used,” Jourová said. “I don’t want elections to be a competition of dirty methods. New technologies should be tools for emancipation, not for manipulation.”
She cited the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which she said was “an eye-opening moment for all of us”, and the EU referendum as motivating factors for the proposed legislation.
In 2018 it was revealed by the Observer that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had acquired the personal data of millions of American Facebook users without their consent in 2014 in order to target them with personalised political adverts.
“We do not want the method when the political marketing uses the privileged availability or possession of the private data of people [without their consent],” Jourová said.
Jourová also referenced the leave campaign’s “We send the EU £350m a week, let’s fund our NHS instead” slogan in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. “What we saw was the fake news of [saying we will] not be paying money to the EU but paying to the national health system,” she said. “It was proven not to be true and it influenced the will of the people to a large extent, according to many analysts.”
The commissioner made her comments as the EU’s executive branch proposed a European democracy action plan due to be put into law before the European elections in 2024. Beyond further transparency and scrutiny of political advertising, the commission wants to tighten the rules on the funding of political parties in the EU to avoid foreign interference.
Jourová said she was dissatisfied with the tech sector’s level of engagement with a voluntary code of practice which she said would be beefed-up to oblige on-line platforms to try and mitigate the dangers of false claims being spread on their sites.
With media pluralism under threat in a host of countries, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Brussels is also looking at how to deal with the increasingly powerful position of the state as a funder of the media.
In Slovenia there were claims that funding was cut to the national press agency after the country’s rightwing prime minister, Janez Janša, who was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign, expressed his dissatisfaction with its output.
Janša had described the Slovenian press agency as a “national disgrace” for giving more time to an interview with a musician critical of the government than to his meeting with the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
Jourová said: “I have expressed my overall concern about the state of media freedom in Slovenia in the past. Media should be able to work freely and independently everywhere in the EU. If you ask me whether we can act, of course I am in dialogue with the Slovenian authorities, I asked for explanations where needed.”