For the first time ever, a Cabinet member has confirmed using public funds on his own personal Facebook page – to promote EU-funded projects.
Aaron Farrugia, the parliamentary secretary responsible for EU funds, confirmed with Lovin Malta that his secretariat paid Facebook €724 since the start of the year to sponsor posts on his own page. These posts were all related to government events and promotion, while other boosted personal posts were paid out of his own pockets.
This admission comes in the context of the vast majority of ministers and parliamentary secretaries using their Facebook pages to distribute government information instead of setting up official ministry pages.
Despite the government having spent at least €1.28 million on social media ads between March 2013 and September 2017, Farrugia is the only Cabinet member to confirm having used public funds to boost government-related posts on his own Facebook page.
This admission confirms that taxpayers’ money is being used to push posts from politicians’ personal Facebook pages to the top of people’s timelines, which has become a competition for space between people, politicians, media outlets and businesses.
Education Minister Evarist Bartolo and parliamentary secretary for sports Clifton Grima, who preside over one of only two ministries with their own dedicated Facebook page, said all public funds on social media adverts were funnelled into the Edukazzjoni Facebook page and not into their personal pages.
Parliamentary secretary Aaron Farrugia
Ministers Chris Cardona, Edward Scicluna, Justyne Caruana, Michael Farrugia, Michael Falzon, Owen Bonnici and Jose Herrera, as well as parliamentary secretaries Julia Farrugia Portelli, Silvio Schembri and Deo Debattista said all money spent on promoting their Facebook pages this year came out of their own pockets. However, only two of these gave an exact figure – Michael Farrugia said he has spent €50 and Julia Farrugia Portelli said she has spent €30.
Ministers Helena Dalli, Joe Mizzi and Carmelo Abela and parliamentary secretary Chris Agius said they didn’t spent a cent in either public or personal funds to sponsor posts on their personal Facebook pages since the start of the year.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Ministers Konrad Mizzi, Chris Fearne and Ian Borg and parliamentary secretaries Silvio Parnis, Roderick Galdes and Tony Agius Decelis didn’t respond to our questions as of the time of writing.
A sponsored Facebook post by Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi
No sign of promised social media guidelines yet
As Facebook becomes more and more widespread, the challenges posed to society by this new age of social media are becoming clearer.
Facebook’s economies of scale allow it to charge cheaper advertising rates than traditional media outlets, and its algorithms allow ads to be micro-targeted to the people most likely to be interested in them. The system has come as a blow to media outlets, who are now being forced to compete with the social media giant for portions of companies’ marketing budgets.
This social media strategy becomes more questionable when it is employed by governments, who would essentially be paying public funds to Facebook instead of to local media outlets – where it can be invested in improving the quality of local journalism.
Moreover, the fact that most ministries don’t even have their own Facebook profiles means that public funds are being used to promote the personal pages of politicians – which include both posts on government work and personal campaigning. Therefore, the lack of regulation gives sitting ministers and parliamentary secretaries the faculty to promote their political re-election campaigns through public funds – giving them an unfair advantage over politicians from their own party and rival ones.
The Prime Minister’s Office is clearly aware of the problems caused by the current state of play, and indeed a spokesperson confirmed last month that guidelines are being drafted to improve transparency on social media ad expenditure within the government.
“The government communications office is taking a Digital First approach and encourages ministries to communicate with citizens through social media and digital platforms,” the spokesperson said. “Social media is an effective tool to communicate directly with audiences if used in a transparent manner. That is why the Communications Office will be working on guidelines for the use of digital and social media across government.”
No guidelines have been published yet, and the Prime Minister’s Office didn’t respond to a request for an update when contacted by this website.