Lisa Reppell is the Senior Global Social Media and Disinformation Specialist at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).
The integrity of elections around the world faces more hurdles as paid political speech online intensifies. When political contestants, third parties and foreign actors are able to funnel money into influencing elections with no transparency or accountability, democracy suffers. Not only do democratic governments and civil society actors need more tools to understand online political campaigning, but it’s critical that the needs and experiences of a wider array of global voices are represented in conversations about data availability, evolving online campaigning tactics and platform bureaucracy.
The work of Chesno, a Ukrainian civil society organization provides a powerful example. During the 2019 presidential elections in Ukraine, political parties reported that the share of their spending during the election on social media ads constituted only 1.1% of the total spent on campaign activities, and only 2.2% during parliamentary elections that same year. Using the Facebook Ad Library, which Meta first made available in Ukraine in 2019, Chesno and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cross-referenced political parties’ self-reported numbers on digital ad buys to demonstrate the inaccuracy of these numbers. During the 2020 local elections, compliance with reporting requirements increased considerably: parties self-reported that paid online advertising comprised 11.6% of total campaign expenditures. It is likely that the very fact of knowing that someone was looking – even with the limitations of the Ad Library in disclosing the types of detailed information many democratic actors desire – drove political parties to be more transparent.
My team at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems is working to foster more transparent systems. While many countries limit campaign spending to promote more equitable campaigns, the inability to track how much is being spent online hinders these efforts. In order to inform our work, IFES recently interviewed civil society, election commissions and political finance regulators in nine-countries across five continents to understand how democratic institutions are adapting to mandates to bring oversight to online campaigning – and the ways in which they are using the ad transparency features of social media companies to do so.
Our interviews focused on pain points and needs that democratic actors face when it comes to ad transparency. Here are a few findings:
- Data is unavailable in many countries – There is significant geographic disparity in the availability of ad transparency tools. For example, Google’s political ad transparency data is still only available in 8 countries outside of the European Union.
- Data is incomplete – Meta has continued to invest in expanding its Ad Library to more than 200 countries. This data is the only platform-supplied information that most democratic actors outside of the world’s largest democracies can access. Our partners note that the wide spending ranges reported in the Ad Library obscure how much was actually spent on ads. In addition, the library provides limited insights into how ads were targeted. Multiple partners also anecdotally observe that known political ads are not captured in the Ad Library.
- Data is not standardized – People IFES interviewed in the UK and New Zealand called out the challenges of comparing or aggregating data to gain a comprehensive picture of campaign spending when all the platforms release data in different formats.
- Data is insufficient for identifying foreign funding – A perception persists among oversight institutions that major platforms and digital financial service providers are facilitating the purchase of online political advertising from abroad in contravention of national law. Interlocutors report dissatisfaction with the willingness of platforms to provide the information that would be needed to identify this activity.
Beyond the limitations of the available data, new forms of paid campaigning enabled by online media present challenges to oversight bodies charged with bringing accountability and transparency to campaign activities. In particular, interlocutors report that they are unable to gain systematic insights into paid coordination between political contestants and third parties online that violates their countries’ electoral laws and regulations.
A common example of this practice is social media pages and accounts run for hire; commercial entities or individuals build audiences, often by peddling entertainment content, and then sell or rent that online property to political contestants or third parties who use them to share political messages, incendiary content or conspiracy in ways that are not easily traceable. A Tunisian researcher we spoke to highlighted this as a prevalent practice during the 2019 presidential elections, with accounts then purging political content from their pages post-election and changing names to avoid monitors.
Political contestants also pay creators and influencers to promote negative or deceptive narratives that they don’t want associated with their official campaign. Failing to disclose these paid relationships is another way to obscure or evade campaign spending limits. Even platforms that officially ban political advertising are vulnerable to this deception.
There is also no justification for online platforms’ slow responses to legitimate requests for information in the investigations of violations of election law, a frequent complaint made by governmental oversight bodies. While there should be scrutiny on the ability of governments to request sensitive information about their citizens from social platforms, the possibility of abuse is not sufficient justification for failing to comply with legitimate requests for information in the investigation of violations of election law.
In an example indicative of the experience of many oversight institutions, the Federal Electoral Tribunal of Mexico – an independent judicial body that, by law, rules on cases of electoral violations in six days – waited two years for information after it made a formal request for basic information related to a Facebook Page actively facilitating political violence. Magistrates at the Tribunal recount repeated experiences being passed from entity to entity within Facebook and Twitter, suggesting a lack of procedure or clarity about who within the companies has the ability or authority to respond to a legal request for information related to election law violations.
The good news is that there are available routes to bring greater accountability to online campaigning. Civil society, academics and oversight institutions are innovating new approaches to bring greater transparency to online political campaigning using data visualization, independent political ad repositories, and crowdsourcing political ad data, just to name a few. But for organizations like Chesno, and countries like Ukraine and Mexico and the many others with critical upcoming elections and limited existing capacity to translate transparency data from the platforms into greater accountability for political contestants, more is needed, faster and urgently.
Lisa Reppell is the Senior Global Social Media and Disinformation Specialist at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. IFES is a non-partisan, non-governmental international organization that over the past 35 years has supported local partners in more than 140 countries to promote and protect democracy.