Political advertising is only one part of a larger problem regulation needs to solve

April 2021. Since Russian Ads appeared in the US Presidential election campaign and the Cambridge Analytica Scandal in UK Brexit Referendum highlighted lacunas in electoral regulations that allow political actors to advertise online without scrutiny, there has been a surge in proposals to regulate political advertising online. The problem was not that political advertisers were in breach of election regulations, more so that there were no laws to address the issue of political advertising online. The lack of regulation is a substantial loophole in electoral regulation that can be exploited to undermine free and fair political campaigns and the outcome of elections.  

Traditionally, election advertising is regulated to ensure a fair political playing field – sometimes by banning it from specific mediums, such as in Ireland’s broadcast ban, or a longer moratorium, such as in France. But governments have been slow to react to the risks posed by unregulated online political advertising and where they have, the approach has largely been reactive to the issues that emerged in the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Regulatory proposals tend to focus on the transparency of paid adverts on platforms as a remedy. But is it enough?

The EU Code of Practice on Disinformation and French Law No. 2018-1202, for example, focus on requiring platforms to disclose who paid for an online advert, who benefited, how much was paid and whether it was labelled as a political advert. Here, online advertising is conceptualised as an image and text or a short video on a platform and the solution to the lack of regulation is to label the content as a political advert and offer details about who paid the platform for it. This approach is very similar to how the advertising process was conceptualised in the pre digital era, like a newspaper advert or a short TV or radio broadcast.

However, the media environment is fundamentally transformed. The standard political communication model of journalists, politicians and citizens now incorporates a wide range of actors, as well as new hybridised communication practices (Chadwick, 2017). The amendment of regulations designed for elections in the pre-digital age is unlikely to be sufficient to address the array of tools, practices and processes through which those with funds and motivation can access online audiences.

Why do we regulate?

Regulating political advertising has aimed to prevent political actors with deep pockets from using their resources to flood a media market with their messages and manipulate the media environment to favour their goals. This goal has been confronted with novel challenges in the hybrid media system which has introduced a wide range of new communicative practices. Changes in technologies are rapid including how platform affordances are repurposed by users. Holtz-Bacha and Kaid (2006) in thinking about broadcast TV, argue for a more modernised and professionalised definition of political advertising; it should be viewed as “any controlled message communicated through any channel designed to promote the political interests of individuals, parties, groups, governments, or other organisations”. Additionally, Katharine Dommett and Mehmet Emin Bakir (2019) argue paid for political campaigning goes far beyond advert posts on social media: “Campaigns also use other kinds of paid content beyond advertising (such as paying influencers or to boost organic posts) and they also rely on public posts and organic content to disseminate their messages and ideas”.

Today, a wide range of political actors can access national media without concern for editorial control over the message or how they are represented as political actors. Social media allows for self-representation and facilitates a wide range of political and electoral communications and mobilisations. Creative political campaigners can find innovative and sophisticated ways of creating and distributing political content. The affordances of platforms, the variability of mediums, multimedia formats, innovations in media culture and the evolution of trends and memes have reshaped the ways in which social media is utilised by political parties, lobby groups and other actors. Political and electoral campaigning now covers a substantially wider variety of practices and publications.

In Ireland alone there are countless examples of these new norms that raise questions over the resources used. Far-right actors are fundraising via YouTube; NewsBrands Ireland, an officially registered lobby group distributed their #MediaMatters campaign on social media; and on Telegram anti-lockdown activists fundraise bitcoin via bitchute and social media influencers promote policy positions. Even Fine Gael’s social media team parodied rival party Fianna Fail in video posted to YouTube. These are only some of the new political campaigning practices, and they are far from the idea of image + text + payment conceptualised by attempts to regulate emergent forms of online political adverts.

In modern political campaigns, activities are all ‘paid for’ or resourced in some way, shape, or form whether it be a staffed social media team, volunteered time and skillsets or content creation. While this has lowered the barrier for entry into the political sphere and created a space where citizens can more actively engage in political discourse, the problem for democracies remains the same: those with the most resources, whether it be funds or time and skills, have more power to manipulate the information ecology. Therefore, the limited definition of political advertising that is being used by many scholars and campaigners today fails to recognise or address the purpose of regulation of political advertising, the spirit in which regulation was formed and the threats to democracies that come from the wider range of political campaign practices. Although the barrier for entry is now lower, the advantage still lies with the better resourced.

So, what can rebalance the scales and ensure a more level playing field? How can we approach the question of governance of electoral campaigns in the era of hybrid media, where professional communicators cooperate and compete with politicians, citizens and various other political agents?

Preserving the integrity of democracy

The problematic lack of audience studies that evaluate the efficacy of content labelling was discussed in Richard Allan’s Regulate Tech podcast. There are few, if any, studies that address the question of whether the regulatory approach of labelling and providing users with information actually helps support free and fair elections. Content labels may provide users with the option to explore, but there is little research that offers insight into the scale with which these are used or whether there is a cumulative effect that ensures the media ecology supports free and fair elections. One of the critical starting points should be to address to what extent the current approach of labelling advertising content affects users and whether the uptake and impact is sufficient to ensure we do not see the same issues arise.

Much of the research on political advertising and transparency focuses on what should be required of the online platforms, however, Kirk and Teeling (2021) advocate for a two-pronged approach that calls for EU wide regulation of platforms and national level regulation of political parties. At an EU level, platforms can be compelled to disclose their full advertising libraries. National election regulation can compel political parties, donors and lobbyists to disclose details of advertising spending. There is then opportunity to compare the databases and identify any issues creating a more transparent system that allows for comprehensive election monitoring and policy compliance by platforms and parties alike. More comprehensive national level regulation can require disclosure of other resources, such as the size of social media teams, payment for content creation that optimises reach or use of influencers to promote parties or policies. There is also room to expand the rules regarding who should register as a lobbyist and a revaluation of what constitutes lobbying in the digital era. However, more research into what new actors and practices are currently in use is needed to develop any effective regulation, and such studies are lacking.

In response to the development of new media institutions, an institutional response could also be an option. The development and support of ongoing independent media monitoring organisations with experts in the various problems that emerge from funding or resourcing digital political campaigns would be an important piece of the information infrastructure needed to address current and emerging problems. Of course, all the above working cooperatively would be an optimal starting point.

Research, Rethink and Redefine

The affordances of platforms, the variability of mediums, multimedia formats, innovations in media culture and the evolution of trends and memes have reshaped the ways in which social media is utilised by political parties, lobby groups and other actors. The emergence of the hybrid media system (Chadwick, 2017), whereby news or any public interest content flows across digital platforms and is re-interpreted and reconstructed by a range of actors, constitutes a new mediated space and generates new norms and communicative practices.

Definitions of political advertising that overlook the material and technological reality of how platforms are used by political actors can only offer limited protections for fair and transparent elections. If what regulation seeks to prevent is the manipulation of the media environment by the best resourced, there is a pressing need to reconceptualise the resourcing of political and electoral campaigns in such a way that reflects new and evolving communication practices.


Further Reading

  • Chadwick, A. (2017). The hybrid media system: Politics and power. Oxford University Press.
  • Dommett, K., & Bakir, M. E. (2020). A Transparent Digital Election Campaign? The Insights and Significance of Political Advertising Archives for Debates on Electoral Regulation. Parliamentary Affairs, 73(Supplement_1), 208-224.
  • Kaid, L. L., & Holtz-Bacha, C. (2006). The Sage handbook of political advertising. Sage Publications.
  • Kirk, N. & Teeling, L. (2021). A review of political advertising online during the 2019 European Elections and establishing future regulatory requirements in Ireland, Irish Political Studies, DOI: 10.1080/07907184.2021.1907888.


Skip to content