Measures designed to promote equity can include creating and enforcing spending caps for political parties and candidates with the goal of creating a level playing field for less financially well-resourced contenders. Other countries are experimenting with obligations for platforms to provide equitable advertising rates or provide free, equitably available ad space to candidates and parties.
Promoting equity as a deterrent to disinformation is an acknowledgment of the financial foundations of many coordinated disinformation campaigns. By providing political contestants with more equitable opportunities to be heard by the electorate, these measures attempt to lessen the advantage of financially well-resourced contenders who may – among other tactics – direct resources toward the promotion of disinformation to skew the information space. Strategies that promote equity can also benefit women, people with disabilities, and people from marginalized groups who are often less well-resourced than their more privileged counterparts and who are often targets of disinformation campaigns.
i. Promote equity: Measures directed at domestic actors
An approach to leveling the playing field on social media is capping how much each party or candidate can spend on social media, either as an absolute cap or as a percentage of overall campaign spending.
Romania, for example, caps expenditure for paid social media advertising at 30 percent of the overall allowed spending.46 In the U.K., spending on social media is counted toward candidates’ and parties’ applicable spending limit and must be reported. Any material published on social media that is “election material” – i.e., promotes or opposes: specific political parties, candidates or parties that support particular policies or issues, or types for candidates, and is made available to the public – counts toward the limit.47
These measures do, however, require respective countries to operate effective campaign spending disclosure and investigation mechanisms—an asset most democracies lack.
ii. Promote equity: Measures directed at platforms
Multiple countries have updated their legal frameworks to extend the principle of equity in the pricing of political advertisements to social media. In the context of traditional media, legal and regulatory measures might be used to ensure that candidates and parties have access to the same advertising opportunities at the same price. For example, measures requiring television, radio, or print media to publish their advertising rates as a means to ensure all actors have equal access to these distribution channels and that outlets cannot censor certain political views by charging different rates.
Extending this logic to social media – where advertising views are often determined in real-time online auctions that take place in the blink of an eye as users scroll through their social media feeds or refresh their internet browsers – presents a different challenge. The cost to place an ad will fluctuate based on numerous factors that determine how much demand exists to reach specific users. For example, in 2019 during the U.S. Democratic Primary Elections, the cost of reaching likely-Democratic voters and donors on Facebook increased dramatically as the 20 candidates competing for the Democratic presidential nomination drove up demand, with implications for down-ballot candidates trying to reach voters as well. The cost for Republican candidates and organizations to reach voters were significantly less given that there was no competitive Republican presidential primary to drive up demand.
Despite the complexity of advertising price determinations on social media, multiple countries have attempted to regulate in this area:
- Paraguay stipulates that social media platforms that alter their advertising rates in ways that favor any party or political movement over another will be subject to a fine.48
- El Salvador’s Electoral Code references a constitutional obligation that the media must provide information on the rates they charge for their services, and that the constitutional principle of equity in pricing among political parties is applicable in the case of social media.49
- Venezuelan regulations bar social media platforms from endorsing or supporting candidates while enjoining them from refusing to accept paid advertising from any candidates.50
Requiring social media platforms to institute a standard of equity among parties and candidates would require changes to how advertisements are selected and shown to users or how they are priced. Requiring social media platforms to treat candidates and parties equitably presents a range of questions for enforcement, but it is an important principle to consider given platforms’ immense power in this regard. Companies have the technological edge to advantage or disadvantage preferred candidates by, for example, more effectively targeting some ads of candidates who have more favorable positions towards the platforms themselves. Recent examples in India and the United States have demonstrated the ways in which political pressure and public perception can shape content moderation decisions. Platform actions in this regard would be largely undetectable with the transparency tools available in many countries, and it is uncertain whether such practices would constitute a violation under current legal and regulatory frameworks.
Another possibility is to require that social media platforms publish advertising rates. This type of provision could be incorporated into the standards required of a political ad library or another ad repository, which would allow transparency into the comparative rates that parties and candidates are paying to get their messages out. A movement to create equity in political advertising would likely require increased global pressure from multiple countries – including large markets such as the EU and the U.S. to gain traction, but it is an underexplored avenue. There would also likely be a discussion about how equity should be conceived in light of the different nature of online advertising.
The laws and regulations of some countries stipulate that traditional media providers give, in equal measure, free advertising time or space to political parties or candidates that meet predetermined criteria. This is intended to provide competing parties more equitable access to bring their platforms and ideas to the electorate regardless of their financial resources.
The present study has not identified any jurisdictions that require social media platforms to grant equal free advertising space to candidates or political parties. However, the Bulgarian framework allows social media platforms to equitably allocate free advertising space to electoral contestants and requires the platforms to disclose how they allocate it among candidates and parties.51 The Bulgarian approach could serve as a pilot precursor for countries that contemplate compelling social media platforms to offer free campaign advertising space on an equal basis. It is feasible that a national-level provision that draws on existing national law to extend the precedent of equitable free advertising would be able to prevail on major social media companies to provide ad credits to qualified parties, though this is as of yet untested.
46. Law on the financing electoral campaigns and the activity of political parties, n ° 334 (2006): art. 38(2)(b).
47. “Overview of non-party campaign material,” U.K. Electoral Commission, 10.
48. Compendium of Election Norms, (2018): art. 337.
49. Electoral Code, n ° 413 (amended 2020): art. 174.
50. General Regulation of the Organic Law of Electoral Processes, art. 211-212.
51. Electoral Code of Bulgaria, § V, art. 198 (1).