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Silicon Valley pulled out all the stops for last year’s run for the White House. Its work in the Netherlands has been far less hands-on.
As Dutch voters go to the polls this week, the limits social media companies placed on political advertising during the U.S. election are gone, and their technology has been used to illegally track visitors to Dutch political party websites, according to research seen by POLITICO.
The companies argue their actions are “based on the local situation,” and while they have gone some way to addressing fears that they are unable to properly respond to local needs — reviewing Dutch language content, for example — critics have described their commitments to do so as vague.
Despite a number of elections under their belt, hard questions remain about the role Big Tech platforms play in democracies and their ability to effectively police elections.
In the United States, Twitter was the early pacesetter, banning all political advertising in late 2019. Google and Facebook followed suit, introducing temporary bans or limits on political advertising in the run up to the November showdown.
The vast majority of political messaging comes from so-called organic content, or Facebook posts and YouTube videos that are not promoted via online ads. Yet partisan groups have used paid-for messages to target potential voters, often peppering them with specific ads aimed at convincing them to vote one way or another.
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In the Netherlands, that practice has been maintained.
Google is not banning political advertising, but said it continuously evaluates the local context for any change and has been working with local researchers and political parties to track potential disinformation. “Each election takes place in a different context with different local laws and guidelines. We look at what’s relevant in that local context, including in the elections taking place this week,” the spokesperson said.
Facebook is also keeping political ads open. A spokesperson said: “Elections in the Netherlands are different to elections in America. The steps we have taken to help protect and preserve the integrity of the democratic process are based on the local situation and the lessons we have learnt working on over 200 elections around the world over the last few years.”
It’s not just the ads people can buy up on their platforms, but also the data they can serve up. Google and Facebook dominate the technology used by scores of political parties to market their messages.
Research by Floor Terra of The Hague-based Privacy Company seen by POLITICO shows that Google and Facebook tracked visitors to 13 and eight political party websites respectively without their consent using cookie tracking technology, in violation of EU privacy standards. The data collected using this technology could be used to target ads.
Facebook said it requires organizations to obtain all the necessary consent from users and to have all of the necessary rights and permissions to use its tools.
But their efforts to police advertising have failed to convince — largely because it’s unclear who’s going to do the policing. While the tech platforms and most political parties signed a code of conduct on online advertising early on in the campaign, the document was nonbinding and left considerable room for interpretation.
“I think it’s a nice gesture of the involved parties, but there is no monitoring, enforcement or penalty mechanism. The code seems toothless. The social platforms commit to nothing new,” said Tom Dobber, a political communications expert at University of Amsterdam who’s been following the recent political activity.
“The lack of a clear watchdog that monitors compliance makes the code a paper tiger.”
The Dutch election also highlights the fine line tech platforms are treading in elections between doing too much and doing too little. Politicians who signed up for the code agreed to “strictly adhere to the advertising policies and mechanisms of online platforms, and provide truthful data for registration and verification of advertisements.”
This begs the question as to who is actually setting the rules. As Dobber put it: “It seems to me the reverse order, right? Political parties now let Facebook decide what is acceptable political speech.”
The code committed signatories to avoiding the most controversial types of profiling. But language around microtargeting — whereby adverts are targeted using very specific criteria, like whether you are a young parent — was woolly, with political parties committed to “maintain ethical boundaries when linking different datasets and uploading them to online platforms for microtargeting.”
The far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) and Party for Freedom (PVV) didn’t even sign the pledge, even as the FvD leads in political ads on Facebook among all Dutch parties, according to Dobber’s research.
FvD’s preference for Facebook, rather than Google, to target ads is likely no coincidence. While Google only allows targeting based on gender, location and age, Facebook’s tech allows for much more targeted advertising, such as at parents of toddlers and at divorcees, among many other categories, in effect helping a party to find a ready and welcoming audience for its message.
Facebook said allowing more granular targeting helps first-time candidates and nonprofits play a bigger role in political discourse, allowing them to reach the intended people for less money.
In a bid to address gripes that getting in touch with the platforms around political ads can be tough in smaller countries, Google and Facebook pledged to introduce a “user-friendly response mechanism” to answer questions or resolve problems related to the elections. Even so, Dobber described the language as “hardly concrete.”
Google doesn’t disclose numbers on the size of the team dedicated to Dutch requests, but it said that it has a team that reviews content round the clock on its YouTube video-streaming site.
Facebook said: “Our dedicated Dutch election team has been working around the clock to prevent abuse of our services.”
Mark Scott contributed reporting.
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