After a report by Lovin Malta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has pledged to introduce guidelines to improve transparency in the way the Maltese government spends money to advertise on Facebook and other social media platforms.
“The government communications office is taking a Digital First approach and encourages ministries to communicate with citizens through social media and digital platforms,” a spokesperson for Muscat told Lovin Malta. “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.”
Excluding money spent to market Malta overseas, the government spent at least €1.28 million of public funds on social media ads alone between March 2013 and September 2017, an average of €23,314 a month. The data is incomplete as the Finance Ministry and the Justice and Culture Ministry have not yet tabled their expenditures in Parliament, meaning we have no idea yet how much was spent on major social media campaigns like the Budgets and Valletta 2018.
Out of the ministries who did submit their figures, the Office of the Prime Minister was by far the largest spender, forking out €553,393 on social media ads alone between March 2013 and September 2017. It is followed by the Gozo Ministry, which spent €394,825, and the Education Ministry, which spent €178,221. In contrast, the Foreign Affairs Ministry only spent a meagre €60 during that period.
Lovin Malta’s calculations show the government’s sponsored posts are popping up on citizens’ news feeds at least 32.6 times a month, assuming everyone in Malta has a Facebook account. This is in stark contrast to other social media savvy governments such as Canada, whose sponsored posts only reach people on average 5.4 times a month.
The problem in Malta is compounded in that there is no uniformity in which government entities have their own Facebook pages. While pages exist for a number of government departments and authorities, only two ministries (Education and Justice) actually have their own Facebook pages. The rest of them distribute Facebook information through the personal pages of the respective ministers or parliamentary secretaries, blurring the lines between ministries and politicians and raising the spectre that public funds are being used to fund politicians’ individual social media campaigns.
After publishing a story laying out this practice, Lovin Malta sent questions to all ministers and parliamentary secretaries to ask where public funds are being used to sponsor posts on their Facebook pages.
Eight of them – ministers Helena Dalli, Joe Mizzi, Jose Herrera, Chris Fearne, Ian Borg, Michael Falzon, and Justyne Caruana and parliamentary secretary Chris Agius – got back to us to state that all sponsored posts on their personal Facebook pages are paid for out of their own pockets. Herrera, the environment minister, went a step further and confirmed plans to set up an ‘Ambjent’ Facebook page “to distinguish between the political and personal aspects”.
We are still awaiting a response from ministers Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi, Chris Cardona and Michael Farrugia, and from parliamentary secretaries Julia Farrugia Portelli, Silvio Schembri, Clifton Grima, Aaron Farrugia, Silvio Parnis, Deo Debattista, Roderick Galdes, and Tony Agius Decelis.
Why does all of this even matter?
Malta has welcomed the age of social media, in particular Facebook, with open arms. Recent EU statistics show that a whopping 82% of the Maltese public are active on social media, making the tiny island the second most social media active country in the EU.
Just as other governments around the world, the Maltese government has taken advantage of the fact that large segments of the population are concentrated on Facebook and has pumped millions of euro into advertising on the social media platform.
Advertising on Facebook has two major advantages over advertising on traditional media outlets – rates are much cheaper and ads can be micro-targeted at people based on their personal details and Facebook activity.
From the government’s point of view, it can therefore use its marketing budget more wisely by targeting ads at people who are most likely to be interested in reading them. For example, it can target ads about pension reforms to older people and it can target ads about its blockchain strategy to people who like several pages on cryptocurrencies.
However, it has placed media houses, whose revenue is highly dependent on advertising, in an extremely tough situation. Not only are media houses forced to compete for space on Facebook news feeds with publicly funded ads, but they are also facing a loss of advertising revenue themselves. Essentially, if the government decides to allocate more of its advertising budget on social media and less on traditional media, media houses will be forced to cut costs and the quality of local journalism will take a knock.
With the promise of guidelines to improve social media transparency, is the Maltese government finally waking up to the problem?