The Maltese government is bombarding its citizens’ Facebook news feeds on a colossal scale, spending millions in taxpayers’ money to the social media giant to ensure its promotional posts reach the right people.
The recent news that governments use big data firms like Cambridge Analytica to micro-target potential voters on their Facebook feeds shouldn’t have come as a surprise. As social media use rises and as more and more people get their news directly from platforms like Facebook, it is only natural for governments to want to claim large chunks of this new virtual space and move the public narrative in their favour.
Yet the Cambridge Analytica story has raised serious questions about whether Facebook has allowed itself to be used as a tool for politicians to pay for the vast-scale manipulation of public opinion – not through in-your-face ads but rather by pushing posts to the top of peoples’ Facebook news feeds in an extremely targeted manner. Which brings us to Malta.
Under Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the Labour Party has won two general elections in 2013 and 2017, as well as European Parliament and local council elections in between, by colossal majorities of around 36,000 votes. Under Muscat’s leadership, the Labour Party has absolutely mastered the use of social media, leading to suspicions – first floated back in 2013 by assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – that it has paid a company like Cambridge Analytica to manipulate people’s news feeds.
The government has flat-out denied even speaking to such companies, but data compiled by Lovin Malta shows it doesn’t even need to outsource this job and is perfectly capable of flooding social media with its own narratives by itself.
Let’s start breaking down the numbers
Data tabled in Parliament shows the government spent at least €2.62 million on social media ads between March 2013 and September 2017.
Unfortunately, the data is incomplete as the Finance Ministry and the Justice and Culture Ministry have not yet provided their respective figures – meaning we have no idea how much was spent on major social media campaigns like the Budgets and V18.
The total expenditure includes €1.34 million to market Malta overseas, which we will exclude as our intention is to analyse the local market.
We are therefore left with €1.28 million of public funds spent on social media ads over 55 months – an average of €23,331 a month. For the sake of this article, we are assuming all social media ads were on Facebook – by far the most popular social media platform in Malta.
The expenditure isn’t distributed evenly amongst ministries. The Office of the Prime Minister has spent a whopping €553,393 on social media ads between March 2013 and September 2017, followed by the Gozo Ministry (€394,825) and the Education Ministry (€178,221). In contrast, the foreign affairs ministry has only spent a meagre €60.
An analysis by MaltaToday last year on the OPM’s expenditure shows clear surges in spending during the two most recent Budgets on record (October-November 2015 and 2016) and during the last general election (April-May 2017).
So how many people is the government reaching on Facebook?
It’s impossible to give an exact figure as Facebook has a complex algorithm system that allows sponsored posts to be targeted at very specific audiences. You can target people by age, by gender, by marital status, by which pages they like and by which groups they form part of, so as to ensure your ads will only appear on the Facebook news feeds of people who are likely to be interested in them. For example, ads about the Vote 16 campaign could be targeted primarily at teenagers, while ads about pension reforms could be targeted primarily at older people.
To arrive at an estimate at the impact of sponsored posts on Facebook news feeds, we used data from ten randomly selected Lovin Malta sponsored posts from last month. On average, pumping €90 into one of our articles gives it an extra reach (ie. how many times a post pops up on a newsfeed) of 56,658 Facebook news feeds.
Ok, but what about the government?
If the government spends €23,314 on social media ads a month and if pumping €90 into a post gives it an average extra reach of 56,658 people, then a simple calculation will reveal that the government’s sponsored Facebook posts have a monthly average news feed reach of 14,676,940.
It is important to clarify here that we are only talking about the paid reach of Facebook posts here. This is over and above the amount of times the posts would have appeared in people’s news feeds organically, ie. without a money-induced boost.
The figure is astronomical. To put it into perspective, Lovin Malta’s articles had an average TOTAL reach (paid and organic) of 1,377,080 people last month. Therefore, by sponsoring posts, the government is gaining a Facebook reach worth 11 Lovin Malta pages.
How does this compare to other countries?
If you assume that everyone in Malta has a Facebook account and divide the government’s paid reach by Malta’s population (450,000), you would find that paid government posts are popping up on people’s news feeds on average 32.6 times a month.
Now let’s compare this with Canada, whose Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been credited with mastering the use of social media. Between Trudeau’s election in November 2015 and May 2017, the Canadian government spent €5,896,797 on social media ads – not including Canada’s tourism marketing. This amounts to a monthly average spend of €310,358 and a monthly paid reach of 195,380,706 news feeds. Divided by Canada’s population (36,290,000) and that amounts to the government targeting Canadian citizens with sponsored posts on average 5.4 times a month. This means the Maltese government targets its citizens with Facebook ads on average six times more than the Canadian government does.
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Why is this even a problem?
On the face of it, advertising on social media is a neat way of saving taxpayers’ money – an argument cited by Canada in fact. Facebook’s economies of scale mean that it can afford to charge much lower advertising rates than traditional media outlets, and its ability to micro-target ads gives the government more value for its money.
Yet there are serious problems with this new trend that are lying just below the surface.
1. Unless the government has significantly increased its advertising budget, it is allocating more and more of this budget to a multinational platform instead of to local media. The ultimate result will be media houses having to cut their costs – which will mean fewer journalists, lower salaries, and consequently a knock in the quality of local journalism.
2. It is all completely unregulated. As it stands, there is absolutely nothing that can stop the government from deciding to spend all its advertising budget on Facebook and nothing on media organisations, or from pulling the plug on advertising when a media house gets too critical.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
3. It is all being paid for by taxpayers’ money. The ads in question here are all funded by the government and do not include those funded by the Labour Party or individual political candidates. It would be fair if the ads were solely for purely national and non-partisan purposes, but the lines are extremely blurry in Malta. Many ministries don’t even have their own Facebook pages but disseminate information through the personal Facebook pages of the respective ministers, blurring the lines between ministries and politicians.
For example, a sponsored government Facebook post by the Gozo ministry or the home affairs ministry will not be published by the ministry’s Facebook page but by the personal Facebook page of Justyne Caruana and Michael Farrugia. These pages do not only include national information about their ministries, but also information about the minister’s promotional campaigns. This essentially means that ministers’ promotional campaigns are being funded by taxpayers’ money, which is extremely unfair to other politicians.
4. Flooding people’s news feeds with information distorts reality in favour of the people in power. Not many people are going to readily admit to being brainwashed but there is no doubt that a constant flow of one-sided information impacts the way you see the world. As mentioned above, the government’s paid reach is worth 11 Lovin Malta pages. Assuming Lovin Malta is a good average, then our calculations show that even the combined total monthly reach of all the independent media houses in the country is still not as high as the reach paid for by government.
Also, the reach we are talking about here is solely about specific government-sponsored posts on social media. It does not include government adverts on TV, newspapers, websites, Google and radio, nor does it include articles that favour the government which are published in the media. It doesn’t include posts and adverts on traditional and social media by the Labour Party and it doesn’t include organised Facebook comments under posts or comments criticising the government.
It might sound like a tired cliche, but this has got nothing to do with getting the Labour Party out of government. Absolutely not. We live in a democracy and people should be free to make up their own minds as to which party and politicians should be in power. This is about giving people the right to an informed choice, which is only possible if we have access to as much information as possible. More and more people are getting their news from Facebook, but the government has used taxpayers’ funds to completely dominate social media.
For the sake of the future of journalism, Malta desperately needs a discussion about government advertising. It must be transparent, it must be fully regulated, and it cannot be used as a carrot and stick to get media houses in line. As taxpayers, we have a right to know how our government is spending our money to promote itself – it is not on that two ministries have yet to answer questions about their social media spending that were asked to them half a year ago.
We should also impose limits on how much of the government’s advertising budget should be allocated to social media and how much should be allocated to the local media. Social media ads may be more financially competitive, but the money is ultimately going into the pockets of a multinational behemoth rather than into local media houses to reinvest in journalism.
This is not only a Maltese problem and it is unchartered territory for democracy but it is high time something is done about it.