Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi has confirmed using public funds to promote posts on his personal Facebook page but refused to state how much.
Mizzi had originally ignored Lovin Malta’s questions and only provided a response after we submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for proof of payment whenever he used taxpayer money to boost posts on his Facebook page.
“Kindly be informed that a public page for the initiatives of Minister Konrad Mizzi is administered by the Ministry for Tourism,” the ministry responded. “The Facebook page is a legitimate and cost-effective channel for dissemination of information of public interest. Only posts related to ministerial initiatives may be promoted through public funds.”
Mizzi becomes the second Maltese Cabinet member to confirm using public funds on his personal Facebook page, following EU funds parliamentary secretary Aaron Farrugia. However, Farrugia was more transparent – confirming in May that he had paid Facebook €724 to boost posts related to EU-funded projects since the start of the year.
The advantages of advertising on Facebook are clear. Not only are its advertising rates far cheaper than those offered by traditional media outlets, but its algorithms allow ads to be targeted at specific audiences. Yet this shift has come as a blow to media outlets, who are now being forced to compete with the social media behemoth for portions of companies’ marketing budgets.
The Maltese government has embraced Facebook advertising full-on. Statistics show it spent at least €1.28 million on social media ads, mostly Facebook ones, between March 2013 and September 2017. Assuming everyone in Malta has a Facebook account, then that would mean paid government posts are popping up on people’s newsfeeds on average 32.6 times a month.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook has created existential problems for media outlets
It also means that €1.28 million in public funds was paid to Facebook, instead of to local media outlets – where it could have been invested in improving the quality of local journalism.
Moreover, it is as yet a completely unregulated playing field. While some ministries, such as those for education and justice, have their own pages, others disseminate information from the ministers’ personal accounts – blurring the lines between politician and ministry. The lack of regulation essentially gives them the faculty to promote their re-election campaigns through public funds – giving them an unfair advantage over politicians from their own party and rival ones.
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat pledged back in April to draft guidelines to improve transparency on social media ad expenditure, but no such guidelines have been published yet.