The data from the SEC financial reports and the social media reports for the European Parliament election show that the amount spent, which Gong warned about even before the election, is not possible to precisely define and it is necessary to more clearly regulate political advertising on social media and digital platforms
The New Rulebook on Financial Reporting of Political Activities, which is up for e-consultation until Saturday, July 6, and regulates some novelties in this area, surely presents a step towards transparent social media campaign financing. However, it is important to point out that the shortcomings in the Rulebook are still present and to warn that the next election could be more challenging when it comes to comparing the data on cash flow from different sources. This Rulebook (as a better version of the first Rulebook put up for e-consultation, but later withdrawn from the procedure) regulates that the cost report includes the cost of election advertising on social media, for which “a name of the social media and the name/URL of the webpage of the profile and advertising period” must be provided. However, an account of cost per ad is still not required and we do not even know how the IZ-T-IP form in which that data will be entered looks like. The Rulebook states that the form is “an integral part of this Rulebook”, but the form, as well as all other forms mentioned, is not attached to the Rulebook on e-consultation.
During the recent election for the European Parliament, the old Rulebook, according to which the parties do not have the obligation to report on the social media advertising separately, was applied. However, the State Electoral Commission issued a press release that the cost of social media advertising must be shown in the financial reports “whether the candidates have a direct contract with the supplier i.e. social media, or whether the same service is being offered in the service package provided by the advertising agency”. That is really how it is presented in the reports.
However, the data analysis from the reports and comparison with Facebook and Google data showed some shortcomings of the current system, which one has to have in mind for the next election, when the new Rulebook will be applied for the first time.
1. Social media advertising cost are not separated from others
After the publication of the SEC final financial reports, it was noted that the data for social media advertising and Google, reported in the SEC financial reports, differs from the data reported in the Facebook Ad Library and the Google’s Transparency Report on political ads. While the final SEC reports, for example, show that only Mislav Kolakušić and SNAGA paid for Google ads, from the Google report, it is clear that HDZ, SDP and Pametno also advertised their parties on Google. Moreover, the Google ads for SDP were paid by the Mmb media agentur agency, stated in the SEC report, but it was not specifically indicated that it paid the ads to Google. Likewise, from the SEC reports it is not clear that, for example, HDZ and SDP paid Facebook, even though, according to the Facebook Ad Library Report, they are amongst the biggest users in the campaign. Therefore, we can conclude that they also paid through agencies, which is evident from the accounts of the agency services under the paragraph “Promotional and informing services”. In that paragraph the cost of social media advertising is also stated, but it is are not clearly separated from the cost of the billboards and all the other forms of advertising in the public space. Therefore, from the SEC report, it is impossible to conclude how much the party has spent on political advertising on social media. So, in the new form of the financial report, special attention must be given to the presentation of costs for social media that went via an agency, separate from the rest of the agency services package.
2. Facebook and Google data is not complete and easily comparable
Even though the social media and digital platforms, under the pressure from the European Union, made strides towards transparency in political advertising for the EP election, Gong already warned that the new policies are not consistently implemented and that there is a need for a clearer regulation of that type of advertising. By accessing the Facebook’s three newly launched tools for the European election, it can be concluded that, despite the European Union pressure, these tools do not give a complete and easily comparable picture of the political campaigns on that social media. In the Ad Library (1) we can see all the ads for individual sites and get more information for those political ads. However, for each individual ad we only have a range of the amount spent (less than 100 dollars, 100-500 dollars, 500-1000 dollars, etc.) The same goes for the Library API (2), which lists all the ads in the selected time period, but without the exact amounts. In the Facebook Ad Library Report (3), it cannot be checked how much was spent during the campaign for the EP election. The only options are “all the dates”, “last 90 days”, “last 30 days”, “last 7 days”, “yesterday”. Because of that, the cost of political advertising for the individual sites from that report does not have to match the overall cost in the election campaign.
Facebook and other social media have to work on improving these tools, but besides self-regulating of the social media, due to the above mentioned incomparable data, it is necessary that the parties, in their financial reports, show the SEC the cost of every ad and the duration periods for every particular ad, because the request for stating the duration of the ad from the Rulebook is not enough if it does not pertain to every individual ad.
Gong is a Centre of Knowledge in the area of Civil Activism and the Building of Democratic Institutions within the framework of Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.