Some inconvenient truths about Facebook ahead of the European elections

With the declared aim of protecting the integrity of the European elections, Facebook’s new political advertisement rules are preventing these elections from being truly European. 

After revelations about how third countries and unidentified organizations sponsored targeted content during the 2016 Brexit referendum, Facebook has put in place new rules for political advertisement in all EU Member States. 

Under these new rules, paid political content is only allowed in the country where the advertisement buyer is based. While this might make sense in the United States such an approach is not fit for purpose in a jurisdiction like Europe, which is made up of 28 countries. As a result of the new rules, EU political parties are prevented from using Facebook, Facebook Messenger and lnstagram for their EU-wide paid communication campaigns. These rules affect not only EU political parties but also EU institutions, as well as hundreds of not-for-profit organizations and citizen movements currently running get-out-to-vote campaigns across the continent. In other words, any European organization whose members and constituency extend beyond one country is put on the same level as foreign entities attempting to interfere in EU elections.

In so doing, Facebook denies the pan-European dimension of the European elections that stems from our unique EU-wide constitutional arrangement. Facebook’s new policy creates a major barrier to the exercise of both EU electoral rights (which are by definition pan-EU) and free movement rights (such as cross-border advertising). 

What is worse, the new Facebook policy also fails to make the European elections more secure: any influencer – inside or outside the EU – who wants to sway EU elections can still buy political advertisements at national level and reach all Europeans. This is deeply troubling, particularly with fewer than 30 days to the European elections. 

This story reveals three disturbing, inconvenient truths. 

First, the European Union, like any other governmental authority, is highly dependent on Facebook and similar platforms to reach out to the public. The Facebook network ecosystem – consisting of Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp – emerges as an inescapable infrastructure for governments when discharging their own prerogatives, ranging from organizing the vote, informing the public about their electoral rights and mobilizing citizens to vote.  In other words, the EU, its governments and political parties need Facebook to do their job.

Second, while this should ring an alarm bell to any government and political candidate ahead of the European elections, they all seem deaf to such a call. Today any policymaker faces the inherent conflict of interest of being expected to govern Facebook while being reliant on it for re-election. 

Third, Facebook – not our governments – is setting the rules of the democratic game. Facebook defines what qualifies as a political advertisement and who may promote it. Facebook polices its own self-imposed rules, acting as gatekeeper to its network infrastructure without being subject to corresponding public scrutiny. So, in the absence of any regulation, Facebook is the acting de facto regulator of European public discourse ahead of and beyond the next European elections.

However, Facebook’s license to govern itself and our societies is not the inevitable result of impersonal forces such as globalization or automation: it results from a deliberate choice made by our political representatives to let Facebook self-regulate, regardless of the manifest externalities of their action.

I can’t imagine a more important challenge for incoming members of the European Parliament.

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