Are ministers being penalised for using Facebook? That’s one of the questions many people are asking following the news that all of Malta’s Cabinet is facing a criminal investigation for their misuse of social media. Here’s a bite-sized breakdown to understand the issue and its ramifications.
Let’s start from the beginning. What’s this all about?
Quite simple really. Our ministers have spent the last seven years spending taxpayer money and resources to boost their own private Facebook pages.
Why should I care?
Because they’re giving themselves an electoral advantage with your taxes – that part of your salary that disappears every month before it enters your bank account. The money we need to pay our doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers and all the other essential services our country needs. We have to be really protective over this money and how it is spent. And it’s our politicians who are entrusted to do this properly.
Yeah, right. Aren’t our politicians the problem?
They shouldn’t be the problem. In fact, our law makes it clear that public officers have a bigger responsibility than others to make sure taxpayer money is not misused. This means that if they misuse of this money themselves, it’s an even bigger crime.
But they’re ministers… aren’t their Facebook pages ours?
No. Their pages belong to them. When Konrad Mizzi stopped being Tourism Minister, he kept his page with 53,000 followers. He can now use that platform to promote his next business venture, for example. On the other hand, our Tourism Ministry has a grand total of 2,400 followers.
That’s because the page was only created very recently, as a consequence of this whole scandal. And it illustrates the point very well. Taxpayers helped build a personal platform for Konrad Mizzi to the tune of 53,000 followers but spent the past seven years failing to build an audience for our actual Tourism Ministry.
So a chunk of our salaries have basically been going into Mizzi’s re-election campaign?
Precisely. And instead they should have been spent on building an official Facebook platform on which to promote important initiatives carried out by the Tourism Ministry, which can then be handed over from one minister to the next. That would also mean taxpayers would need to spend less to promote such activities.
Ok but, Konrad Mizzi is Konrad Mizzi, right? It’s hardly surprising.
But it’s not just Konrad Mizzi who did this. It was common practice among Cabinet members.
You’re telling me someone like Chris Fearne did this too?
Absolutely. The Health Ministry got its first official Facebook page a month ago, after the Standards Commissioner issued his damning report. Until then, Fearne pumped taxpayer money and resources into growing his own Facebook page, which currently has 53,000 likes. And yes, that’s the same page he used to promote his campaign for Labour leadership.
So did every minister do this?
When the Standards Commissioner investigated, only a handful of ministries had their own official Facebook pages. Every other ministry used their minister’s private page to promote their initiatives. And while some ministers have already admitted to using taxpayer money to boost their private profiles, the Prime Minister keeps claiming this never happened.
But Facebook advertising is very cheap. Surely this isn’t a big issue. How much was spent anyway?
Well, we don’t yet know exactly how much was spent, but we have some clues. On Facebook boosts alone, the government spent at least €1.2 million during a 55-month period. That’s €22,000 per month. That amounts to almost €500 per week per ministry that submitted its records. Remember the last time ministers pocketed €500 per week behind people’s backs?
Brace yourself though, because the real amount is much higher than that. First of all, the data is incomplete. Some ministries failed to declare how much they spent on social media. And secondly, that figure only refers to the Facebook boosts. The big money was spent on production.
You know, photographers, designers, video editors, scriptwriters, camera people, etc. Every video or infographic you see on Facebook costs money to produce. Once it’s complete, a smaller amount of money is used to promote that content to reach a bigger audience on Facebook.
So we’re talking about much more than €1.2 million?
Much, much more.
Damn. That’s a lot of nurses and doctors.
Are you convinced yet?
I’m still not sure it’s a crime though. It’s not clear the ministers were aware they were misusing funds and resources.
It’s hard to believe nobody ever questioned whether this was legal. It should be fairly obvious to a public official. Surely they know that they should not spend taxpayer money on building their personal websites. So why should a personal Facebook page be any different?
Ok, but there weren’t specific guidelines for social media.
That’s the argument being made by Prime Minister Robert Abela but it’s not a fair argument because his predecessor Joseph Muscat had been promising social media guidelines since early 2018, when Abela was his legal advisor. They dragged their feet for years and it took a Standards Commissioner investigation for the government to finally agree to the new rules.
So they only acted on this when the Standards Commissioner forced them to?
Yes. And that’s after three of the five ministers questioned by the Commissioner refused to answer his questions. So they also held back the investigation for weeks. And if you look carefully you can probably still find instances where the misuse is still happening.
Now that pisses me off. Ok, so who is investigating this?
So this is where it gets really interesting. We asked the Standards Commissioner to investigate. He did and found “widespread” abuse after surveying just five ministers. Then he passed on his report to the National Audit Office. But the NAO said it doesn’t have the resources to launch a criminal investigation, so it passed on the matter to police. And since this is a matter of public funds, a Magistrate launched a full inquiry.
Another inquiry! We’re never going to hear the end of this.
Well, the last magisterial inquiry took about six weeks to complete, so have faith! No but really, this is not a complicated money laundering case that will take years to conclude.
So the question really is whether this constitutes the misuse of public funds for personal gain?
Yep. That’s what the Magistrate and Economic Crimes Unit must determine.
And if they find that it does?
Well, according to the law, ministers could face between two and six years imprisonment if found guilty. And they could also face a general perpetual interdiction which would deprive them of the right to hold public office or vote.
Woah. Isn’t that a bit overboard?
Remember what we said about public officers? It’s their job to make sure public finances are used properly. If they’re the ones misusing the money, it’s a serious crime.
Sure. But compared to everything else that’s been done by politicians in the past years, it seems relatively minor. Do you really think our entire Cabinet should be jailed and prevented from holding office?
For the worst offenders, maybe. Sometimes it’s the smaller crimes that could get you. But most importantly, the government should take this matter seriously, release a proper audit of social media spending (including production costs) for the past seven years, and refund any money that was misused. The government should hold a press conference about this, answer questions, publish its official rule book and appoint someone to oversee that government advertising is done fairly, transparently and with the proper boundaries.
The problem is that they are refusing to do any of these things and they insist the matter is closed. Take our own Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, whose weekly video series was described by the Standards Commissioner as “a thinly-disguised means for a minister to promote himself and to raise his political profile at public expense”. He is still refusing to listen even now that the scandal has reached this massive scale. Just yesterday he had the audacity to call the whole thing a “farce“.
It’s a pity that it came to this, but if the government continues to downplay or ignore this scandal, we will need our institutions to make them respond in court.
Do you really think our institutions will do that?
Well, let’s not forget that our institutions are currently under Moneyval’s pressure to prove that Malta has what it takes to fight financial crime. Our economy depends on their ability to fix Malta’s reputation. If the institutions let Cabinet members get away scot free, we might have an even bigger problem on our hands. And we should not take it lying down.
Ok, so what can we do about it?
Start by sharing this article. Then watch this space for further instructions.