Why new EU rules for political advertising are important

Digital technologies have brought big changes to online political advertising that could - if unregulated - harm democracy.

The use of online political advertising is on the rise and plays a key role in influencing perceptions of political parties and candidates, especially before elections.

Digital technologies and social media have completely changed the landscape of political campaigning by granting politicians massive and immediate reach at a relatively low cost.

While this enables more voices to be heard, new technologies have been misused to spread false information, fragment political debate and manipulate voters with the intention of influencing elections.

Technology misuse

The increasing possibilities and challenges of big data play a key role. When people use social media platforms and other digital service providers, these can collect personal data. The harvested data can be used to define users' preferences, lifestyles and interests, and thus enable micro-targeting.

Malicious actors can use micro-targeting to reach out to different groups, tailoring the message targeted specifically to them and in many cases using emotional manipulation and disinformation.

Micro-targeting can also contribute to the creation of online echo chambers where people are exposed to only one type of information, distorting their perception of public discourse.

The processing of sensitive personal data for advertising practices such as micro-targeting has been found to have negative effects on people's rights, including on freedom of opinion, to limit users’ access to objective, transparent and pluralistic information.

Why political ads must be transparent

People can also be misled about who is behind content. For example, something that looks like neutral information might in fact be sponsored by an entity from a different country trying to influence elections. That’s why people should know who is behind the content of every political advertisement.

New rules before the European elections in 2024

Parliament adopted new transparency rules for political advertising in February 2024. The rules aim to reinforce the integrity of election campaigns and fight disinformation and foreign interference.

The regulation requires political advertising to be clearly labelled, allowing people to see why they were targeted, who sponsored the ad, how much they paid and which elections or referendum it refers to.

The new rules allow the targeting of users only if they have given consent for their personal data to be collected. Some categories of personal data  - such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or minors’ data - cannot be used.

In addition, the rules ban sponsoring ads from outside the EU in the three-month period leading up to elections.

Sandro Gozi (Renew, France), the MEP in charge of steering the new rules through Parliament, said on the day the new legislation was approved: “The rules adopted today play a pivotal role in helping citizens discern who is behind a political message and make an informed choice when they head to the polls. With the European elections approaching, we urge all major online platforms to start applying the new rules as soon as possible and ensure the digital space remains a safe place to exchange political ideas and opinions."

Protecting freedom of expression

The rules on political advertising do not concern the content of the ads, only how they are displayed to users.

In adition the new measures do not concern unsponsored messages, nor do they affect personal views and political opinions, communications and announcements of candidates or informational campaigns by official national or EU sources.

Read more on political advertising and new measures to crack down on abuse

Other rules for a better online environment

The rules on political advertising are part of broader EU efforts to regulate the digital world so that users can enjoy a safer and fairer digital sphere.

In 2022, the European Parliament adopted the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act to ensure a level-playing digital field and give people more control over what they see online.