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    (Not) Spending it all: restrictions on online political advertising expenses

    by Dr Cristina Mitrea, Babes-Bolyai University, post-doctoral fellow DIGIEFFECT 26th of March 2024. 


    Online political advertising has grown exponentially over the last years. In many countries, advertising on digital and social media is on course to make up the largest share of campaigners’ advertising budget. Moreover, while restrictions on electoral campaign and advertising expenditure are fairly common in campaign finance regulations, only handful of countries currently have or plan to implement a spending limit specifically for online advertising expenses.

    Romania is the best-known example with a spending limit of 30% of total campaign costs introduced in a 2015 amendment to Law No. 334/2006 on the financing of the activity of political parties and of the electoral campaigns. Moreover, a 2023 legislative proposal (L313/2023) aims to reduce this amount to only 25%. Additionally, Spain has a limit of 20% for expenses in the periodical press, which includes social media, and Belgium is currently considering implementing a 50% spending limit (see our Data Visuals). This makes spending limits one of the least popular measures in the regulation of online political advertising.

    Most of the national regulation of online political advertising has focused on transparency, especially in regards to reporting the costs of online ads run by political campaigners.
    Additional areas of regulation include labelling online campaign materials as political content and disclosing the identity of the entity paying for the ad, verification procedures for political advertisers, the ban of third-party advertising as well as limits on microtargeting criteria. Such
    legislative provisions aim to limit or eliminate harms associated to digital political advertising, from threats to data protection and privacy to foreign interference in election campaigns. Although national regulators, the EU, as well as online platforms have made significant efforts in regulating online political advertising, there are still a number of unaddressed concerns. For instance, despite having in place a verification procedure for political advertisers, Facebook admits to running political ads even before advertisers complete the verification process. Moreover, online platforms deem compliance with national regulations, such as abiding by a designated campaign period or electoral silence period, as the sole responsibility of political advertisers, making such requirements habitually broken online.

    How would a spending limit for online political advertising contribute to safer campaigns?
    First, it would curb the seemingly inexorable rise of the share of online advertising out of total advertising budgets and limit the amount of (at least partly public) funds directed to online platforms offering advertising services. This limitation would restrict the public’s exposure to the risks of online political ads, among which, for instance, the segmentation of the electorate due to microtargeting practices, and keep in check their potential influence on election results, thereby contributing to their legitimacy.

    On the downside, such a measure is more likely to adversely influence the electoral fortunes of smaller and less well funded political parties and candidates, which rely more heavily on online ads for getting their campaign messages across to the electorate. Moreover, it would
    put additional administrative strain on all electoral competitors to track expenses and on enforcement bodies to oversee compliance and sanction any breaches. Nevertheless, given the intricacies of regulating digital political advertising, restrictions on online advertising expenses seem to be one of the most straightforward means of limiting its potential harms. To be sure, the expected benefits of such a legislative measure are only to be augmented by a stricter regulation of online platforms, in addition to electoral competitors.