The Definition Conundrum: What is Online Political Advertising and How do we Regulate it? 

With political advertising increasingly taking place online, the question of regulation is becoming inescapable. In their latest paper, published in Policy&Internet, Junyan Zhu explores the definition of online political advertising and identities key questions regulators must confront when devising effective frameworks.

The rapid surge of online political advertising in recent years has introduced a new dimension to election campaigns. Concerns have arisen regarding the potential consequences of this practice on democracy, including data privacy, voter manipulation, misinformation, and accountability issues.

But what exactly is an online political advert? This kind of question is hard to answer, and indeed, reports show that 37 per cent of respondents in the 2021 Eurobarometer Survey couldn’t easily determine whether online content was a political advertisement or not. As of now, only a few platform companies, including Facebook and Google, have defined in their own terms what constitutes this form of content.

To address the conceptual challenges faced by policymakers, in our latest paper, we conducted interviews with 19 experts from regulatory bodies, professional advertising associations, and civil society organisations engaged in discussions surrounding online political advertising in both the United Kingdom and the European Union. We delved into the policymakers’ perspectives, seeking to distil their understanding of what constitutes an “advert”, “online” platforms, and “political” content. Instead of crafting new definitions, we pinpointed these alternative factors and illustrated them through a sequence of decision trees. Specifically, our work led us to pose three questions that regulators need to confront:

What does it mean for content to be considered an “advert”?

When we inquired about the criteria for identifying an advert, a consistent key point that emerged was payment. The central idea revolves around whether payment is involved in content distribution or creation, and it also depends on the timing of the payment. Some interviewees also acknowledged the increasingly blurred boundaries between paid and unpaid content. There are organic ways of spreading material that don’t involve payment, such as an unpaid tweet. These differences matter as they suggest alternative criteria for determining what should or should not count as an advert.

What does it mean for an advert to be “online”?

This turned out to be the most challenging question for our interviewees. One idea is to determine this through certain types of media, such as websites, televisions, and mobiles, as these are the platforms on which online political advertising is evident. Another notion that emerged during the interviews was the distinguishing characteristics of online advertising. Online advertising appears to have a greater reach than offline media, an unprecedented speed, higher capacities for online targeting, and the low cost of online advertising, all of which serve as distinctive attributes. However, several interviewees questioned the necessity of isolating online content as a distinct phenomenon, stating they “make no distinction between online and offline” in practice. There are therefore further criteria that must be determined to define the scope of this activity.

What does it mean for an advert to be “political”?

Our interviewees first discussed the significance of specific contexts, explaining that political advertising could be distinguished by references to elections, activities in formal political institutions, or the wider public sphere. A second criterion mentioned is determining whether the advert is placed by specific actors, such as political parties, candidates, or civil servants. A third potential criterion is the goal of advertising – determining whether the responsible actor has political goals or if the advertising content itself holds political intentions.

Taken together, our interviews revealed a number of different criteria that could be used to define online political adverts. They show that the process of producing a definition is an incredibly complex yet vital task for policymaking. We assert that the process of conceptualising online political adverts represents the pivotal first step towards overcoming the obstacles that impede the progress of policymaking. As one of our interviewees aptly stated, “If you can’t distinguish it, you can’t regulate it.”

Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in Policy & Internet.

The original, extended, blog post featured on LSE

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Policy & Internet, nor the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney.