The impact of social media on elections

Disinformation and micro-targeting advertising in the 2019 EU Elections

Christophe Marret – NUPRI Working Paper 04 – julho 2020


In 2018, the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica case raised serious concerns on the impact of data protection infringements on electoral processes, both in the 2016 US presidential elections, and in the 2017 UK general elections. The EU seems to have rapidly reacted after this case to adapt its own legislation to this new threat to democracy, especially with the application of the data protection regulation GDPR. This article focuses on two worrying effects of the digital platforms in the electoral context: the viral proliferation of fake news (disinformation), and the unlawful use of citizens’ personal data to target specific groups of strategic voters (micro-targeting and profiling). This article concludes that the EU chose the co-regulation approach which seems to be the best way, if better supervised (detecting and swamping fake news with other sources of information): the legislative and coercive approach seems to be counterproductive as it could reinforce the auto-persuasion power of fake news. This paper then focuses on the specific application of the European GDPR in the electoral context and concludes that it was partially successful during the last elections for the European Parliament in May 2019. Finally, this article highlights the bureaucratic approach of the European strategy, evaluates the difficulties to applicate it in a new digital economy, and concludes that it is important to continue developing other types of non-legislative measures to combat the disinformation phenomenon, such as fact-checking education at school, and a better collaboration between public authorities, digital industry, and society.