Von der Leyen online ad campaign breaches EU’s election transparency rules
    Article by POLITICO

    WORLD  29 May 2024 - 23:07

    POLITICO has published an article saying up to €70K in Google ads promoting the German politician didn’t disclose links to her reelection campaign. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen failed to disclose she was behind a Google ad campaign worth €70,000 that violated European Union rules endorsed during her time leading the EU executive.

    The EU-wide ad buy — viewed tens of millions of times across Google's search and YouTube services from Germany to Portugal — exclusively heralded von der Leyen through high-production videos of her alleged leadership qualities and her commitment to the EU project.

    "Dive into my campaign! Get exclusive updates," said one ad viewed across seven EU countries, including Belgium, Finland and Italy.

    Yet none of the ads promoting von der Leyen mention her campaign or her European People's Party (EPP) as the official buyer in Google's transparency register, POLITICO found.

    Instead, "MCC AdQuality," a Paris-based consultancy, was mentioned as the entity responsible for the partisan digital messages supporting von der Leyen's campaign. (The name was later changed to "MCC" in Google's political ad register after POLITICO made its initial inquiries about who was behind the paid-for messages.)

    The failure to correctly disclose who had purchased these ads was not illegal. But the EU recently passed new rules to boost transparency on online campaigning, including the need for political candidates and parties to disclose who had bought digital partisan messages to clearly identify themselves.

    While von der Leyen isn't running to be elected to the European Parliament, she is the EPP's candidate to head the Commission and its electoral success could pave the way for her to be crowned again by EU leaders as Commission President.

    Von der Leyen's EPP is also a signatory to a voluntary code of conduct for the upcoming EU vote that includes commitments to "ensure transparency of political advertising and campaign messages" and involves a pledge not to run political ads via intermediaries like ad agencies without correct attribution.

    The EPP's Secretary-General Thanasis Bakolas confirmed that AdQuality was responsible for buying the group’s online ads for the European Parliament campaign. “The EPP, like all political parties, operates under strict rules and regulations and is subject to exhaustive audits to ensure compliance with all financial and legal processes,” he said in an email.

    Google spokesperson Karl Ryan said the company was investigating the ads. He declined to comment when asked if the paid-for messages broke the tech giant's ad disclosure rules.

    NGOs flag lack of scrutiny

    MCC AdQuality spent €69,300 in total on 17 ads across Google's services since mid-March, when von der Leyen announced her campaign for Commission president, according to the tech company's transparency data.

    Several of these ads, which cost between €7,000-€35,000 each, represent some of the largest spends on any political ads on Google over the last two months in Europe, based on the firm's figures. Other big spenders include Hungary's ruling political party Fidesz and Renew Europe, the pan-European liberal political group.

    The EU's rules on online ads will become binding after the European Parliament election on June 6-9. But the Commission already advised major online platforms, including Google, to ensure political parties behind paid messages were being disclosed, in guidelines on election integrity linked to the EU's new content moderation law.

    On Monday, seven nonprofit organizations criticized Google for making it difficult to scrutinize political ads and potential foreign interference on its digital services.

    The groups said Google was only displaying paid election messages from political parties, elected office holders and candidates in its political ad library but failed to capture ads coming from other politicians and nonprofits. That created an opportunity for covert manipulation, the groups said.

    Earlier this month, von der Leyen warned about the threat of foreign interference and meddling in EU politics, pitching it as a key priority in her reelection campaign. She told tech companies they need to uphold the bloc's new social media rules, which include obligations to boost accountability and transparency about how political actors operate on their networks.

    "Big digital platforms must live up to their obligations to put enough resources into this and today's decision shows that we are serious about compliance," the German politician told an audience in Prague in late April.

    Caliber.Az

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