Policy Study


Could the new legislation be effective at stopping populism? 

In the last three years, the European Commission and the European parliament have been preparing key reforms in the space of political advertising to establish rules of the game for political campaigns that are carried out online. Different from analogue forms of political campaigning, due to its novelty, digital political campaigns represent an entry point for activities that are considered to be a threat to the proper functioning of democratic institutions. Firstly, an unregulated digital campaigning sphere is very prone to the proliferation of fake news and disinformation campaigns. Viral campaigns with the prime objective of misinforming the public, spreading hatred and non-democratic positions, have been a major challenge to Western democracies. As such, it has become usual to speak about the situation of an infodemic.

For obvious reasons, the quality of information that reaches the electorate is a key requisite for a healthy democratic order, since the electorate needs to be in a good and informed position to make critical choices that will affect policy planning. Secondly, the unregulated digital campaigning space has led to a vacuum, which has been instrumentalised by foreign actors that have sought to interfere with European elections, promoting disinformation campaigns to create democratic instability and, as a result, gain a geopolitical advantage over adversaries. This phenomenon is particularly relevant in the context of rising geopolitical tensions all across the globe. Thirdly, being linked to the previous issue of foreign interference, an unregulated digital campaigning space has opened the door for populism and populist parties, including far-right coalitions, to rise across the entire EU. The most notable systematic misuse of personal data for campaigning purposes was the case of Cambridge Analytica; this scandal brought the issue of electoral deception through microtargeting to the attention of policymakers and the overall public, and was one of the triggers for the plan to organise a legislative response at the EU level that would set new norms on what is admissible online campaigning and which digital political advertising is contrary to clean elections and the fundamental rights of the voter. 

In this context, the regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the transparency and targeting of political advertising seeks to establish common norms and rule out malpractice in digital campaigning that are harmful to the healthy functioning of the democratic order. This policy brief examines how this regulation has developed; what the key changes are that will be introduced and how it relates to larger debates, such as populism, democratic values and a right to receive quality information. At the same time, this policy brief offers guidelines on how progressive parties can take this legislation as a starting point for greater and deeper efforts to combat extremist populism and antidemocratic political movements in the EU.

This policy study was written as part of the FEPS Young Academic’s Network, please find more info about this project here.

Karl Renner Institut
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