Display campaign costs on social networks properly

The final financial statements after the presidential election show that candidates made a step forward towards a complete picture of election campaigns on social networks. However, there is still a lot of room for progress. Just like the preliminary reports, the final ones do not fully reflect the real costs of advertising on social networks, and the money-flow is difficult to follow.

The Croatian Presidential elections 2019-2020A are the first election applying the Rulebook on Financial Reporting of Political Activities. The Rulebook requires candidates to display the costs of advertising on social networks separately from other expenses.

In the European Parliament elections, for example, the cost of advertising on social networks was not separate from the other package of agency services. Therefore the total cost of campaigns on social networks could neither be determined nor compared with the data from the then launched tools for transparency of the social networks.

Total reported campaign costs on social media

According to the official final financial statements of candidates for the election campaign on social media, the total expenditure in the 2019-2020 presidential election is 214.316 euros. It is a cost reported by seven candidates. Others either did not have an online campaign or did not report it under the new rules. The actual total amount spent will certainly be higher when and if Miroslav Skoro correctly lists his costs for advertising on social networks.

Find an interactive visualization of the preliminary reports HERE.

Although Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic spent the most on the overall campaign, according to official reports, Zoran Milanovic spent the most on social media campaigns – 122.094 euros. Behind him is Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, with a significantly smaller amount of HRK 77.716 for social networks. Of those who run a campaign on social networks, Dario Jurican spent the least – 609 euros. Nedjeljko Babic and Mislav Kolakusic did not report the costs of social networks. Since it is impossible to find their ads in the databases of the social networks themselves, we can conclude that they did not run an official campaign on the networks.

All data from the final financial statements regarding the donors, expenses and media discounts in the presidential campaign are available in Gong’s searchable database

The most common errors in cost display

Social networking costs are not reported  in a separate category

Miroslav Skoro did not report advertising on social networks following the Law and associated Rulebook, as Gong had warned the State Election Commission (SEC). Specifically, Skoro did not report the costs of social networks separately from other agency costs, making it not possible to determine how much he spent on a social media campaign. It is evident from the Facebook Ad Gallery that he had a campaign on Facebook worth around 9.459 euros. Ante Đapić also did not report the cost of advertising on social networks, but it is a much smaller amount.

Costs for all networks are reported together

One of the more common mistakes in preliminary reports was to report costs for all social networks together. Although the Election Campaign Expense Report Form provided a box for “Social Network Name”, and all the networks could be listed separately, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Katarina Peović, and Dalija Oreskovic reported part of the costs for the networks together again in the final reports. This means that it is still not possible to determine how much money is paid to which company so far, and this data cannot be compared with data published by the social networks and digital platforms. Zoran Milanović also made this mistake in preliminary reports, but in the final report, he listed each network and platform separately (Facebook, Google, Instagram).

Costs are reported in the wrong category

Just like in the preliminary reports, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović did not follow the provisions of the new Rulebook when filling in the final report, according to which social network costs should be reported as a separate category. Specifically, she again reported campaign costs on Google in the “media advertising” category instead of the “costs” category on social networks, which means that we have less information for the Google campaign itself (missing information about the advertising period, for example). Also, the cost amounts are confusing because the “discounted amount” paid to Google is higher than the “discounted price” amount.

Are data from official reports comparable with data from social networks?

The data from the final reports are still difficult to compare with the political advertising data published by the social networks and digital platforms themselves. The situation has not improved significantly since the European Parliament elections.

Looking at Facebook’s three transparency tools, it can be concluded that these tools still do not provide a sufficiently comprehensive and easily comparable picture of political campaigns. For example, in the Ad Library (1), we can see all the ads on individual pages and get more information on political ads. However, for each ad, we only have an amount ranking (less than EUR 100 spent, between EUR 100 and EUR 199, etc.).  It’s the same with the Ad Library API (2), which lists all ads in the selected date range, but without the exact amounts. Facebook’s report on the Ad Library (3) does not include option to check exactly how much was spent in the during to the presidential elections in Croatia, as it offers to filter: “All Dates,” “Last 90 Days”, “Last 30 Days”,” Last seven days,” Last day.” As a result, the total cost of political advertising for the individual pages in this report does not have to match the total cost of the election campaign itself.

Even though we can get more information on target audiences, a great disadvantage of the Ad Library is that it still fails to include “microtargeting”. For example, as a Facebook user, you can discover more on why you see a particular ad, yet in the Ad Library, there is no data on which basis the target audience was selected. The information is available on age, gender, geographical location, but there is no information whether a particular ad has targeted someone because he/she was interested in something specific, such as politics, technology, etc.

Although the exact advertising period can be selected in principle, Google’s political advertising transparency report also fails to reach the total amount spent, as it only specifies the cost range for each ad, not the exact amount. Likewise, if you look at the data for each advertiser separately (advertiser-weekly-spend), the total cost can only be tracked on a weekly basis.

Misuse of public resources and ads by third parties, i.e. informal actors

Then-President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic used the Croatian Army and the police in the social network’s political ads during the campaigning for the first round of elections. The SEC assessed the use of the army and police as unacceptable, stressing that it puts other candidates at a disadvantaged position. In the second round, Grabar-Kitarovic again used the army in a YouTube video, thus using her statesmanship activities for the campaign. Considering that act a misuse of public resources, Gong again warned the SEC.

There was also a case of a campaign that was not part of the official campaign of any candidate. A few days before the first round of elections, a page appears on Facebook. Its name was changing during the campaign period, and now it is called “Normal, Never Again.” The site’s ads criticized the biggest rivals of then-president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic – Zoran Milanovic and Miroslav Skoro, as the fact-checking portal Faktograf wrote – the site used disinformation. The ads are not correctly classified as political and did not include a disclaimer. Less than 100 euros was spent on ads.


Social networks and digital platforms

–          Continually work on improving its transparency tools, regularly publish the results of the implementation of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, follow EU guidelines on potential regulation of political advertising

–          Make its transparency tools more visible and accessible to users, and also to the academic and research community

–          Complete the data in its political ad archives and make it more functional: enable accurate cost amounts for each ad, allow calculation of spending over a specific period (Facebook has already done this for the United States), provide more micro-targeting data

Croatia and the State Election Commission

–          Actively monitor the implementation of the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, implement the measures of the European Action Plan against Disinformation and participate in the European Union’s efforts to (self) regulate social networks

–          Insist on the correct and complete entry of expenses for political advertising on social networks when filling in the parties’ and candidates financial statements

–          Regularly compare information from social media political archives with social networks costs reported in official financial statements of parties and candidates, and respond to any irregularities identified

This report has been produced with the financial assistance of NEF-Civitates. The report is based on a DRI outline. The contents of this report are the sole responsibility of the Gong and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of NEF-Civitates.