Breaches in regulation for political ads on social media pose a risk on electoral transparency

Political advertising on social media has given political parties and candidates more possibilities for reaching their constituents. Throughout the past decade the importance of advertising on Facebook and other networks has grown exponentially — however, social media giants are facing frequent criticism over the lack of regulations concerning political ads. According to Debunk EU analysis, from July 15th to October 24th there were 6076 ads about 2020 Lithuanian Parliamentary Election posted on Facebook. More than 407 900 Euros were spent on political ads of parties and its candidates on Facebook during analysed period, the Labour Party invested the most into political advertising on this social network.

Despite the fact that according to Lithuanian laws, period of agitation starts 6 months before the elections, political advertising on Facebook starts before this timeframe. However, political ads in the Lithuanian Facebook archive covers not only ads for Lithuanian Parliamentary Election, but also Presidential election and election to the European Parliament. The amount of political advertisement increased before the end of the permissible period of political agitation of first round of election (October 5th — October 8th).

Dynamics of political ads on Facebook, @DebunkEU data

Here it is important to emphasise, that Facebook considers ads to be about social issues, elections, or politics if ads are:

  • made by (or on behalf of), or about a candidate running for public office, a political figure, a political party, or advocates for the outcome of an election to public office;

  • about any election, referendum, or ballot initiative, including “go out and vote” or election campaigns;

  • about social issues in the location where the ad is placed. regulated as political advertising.

Those ads are collected and archived by AI in Facebook ads library.

Marking of the political ads on Facebook, @DebunkEU data

The analysis has shown that 95.49 % of ads were marked as political advertisement while the rest 4.51 % were not despite that they contained political message. Noteworthy that part of agitational ads not marked as political ads were posted and sponsored by private persons who were neither candidates nor members of a political party.

According to Debunk EU senior analyst Balys Liubinavičius, the ads posted by private accounts pose the biggest risk and might break the rules of transparent political campaigning.

“We notice that the flow of political advertising on social media in Lithuania is rapidly growing. Therefore, it is going to be even harder to disclose who has ordered the ads, because they can hide behind third persons. This tendency burdens the prevention of non-transparent political agitation”,—explains the expert.

The research has shown that Labour Party, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats, and Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union.

Money spent by political parties on Facebook ads, @DebunkEU data

Labour Party including their candidates reached the widest audience of Facebook users and significantly surpassed other political parties in this regard. Analysis has shown that Labour Party actively used Facebook as platform for agitation and greatly invested in Facebook ads.

According to B. Liubinavičius, this may be one of the possible reasons why Labour Party was able to win 10 seats and come back to Seimas. In comparison, in 2016 Labour Party did not pass the necessary threshold of collecting 5% of votes.

Reach by political parties, @DebunkEU data
Reach by candidates, @DebunkEU data

According to the data gathered form Facebook Ads Archive, candidates who posted the most political ads were Vaidas Navickas (Social Democratic Party of Lithuania), Gediminas Jaunius (Freedom Party) and Mykolas Majauskas (Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats). However, out of those candidates only M. Majauskas was able to secure a seat in the Parliament. Such results just come to show that advertising is just a part of political success, however, it does not warrant a victory in the election.

Share of ads posted by candidates, @DebunkEU data
Share of political ads on Facebook by language, @DebunkEU data

Labour Party and Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania — Christian Families Alliance actively sought to reach electorate of Russian and Polish minority in Lithuania during the political campaigns. Both parties have posted Facebook ads in Russian (0,92%) and Polish (0.38%).

In some of their posts Lithuanian Green Party and Freedom Party communicated with their voters in English (0.08%).

Most of the analysed ads contained positive (83.21 %) or neutral (6.75 %) sentiment. Notwithstanding, 1 out of 10 ads contained negative sentiment.

Share of political ads on Facebook by sentiment, @DebunkEU data
“Negative ads mostly critiqued the government. Moreover, negative sentiment was used to call attention to environmental problems or lack of political transparency”, — says B. Liubinavičius.

Most negative political ads were made by the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania and Labour Party. 8 % of all ads made by parliamentary opposition party Homeland Union Lithuanian Christian Democrats were negative.

Share of negative ads by party, @DebunkEU data

According to the analyst, most politicians used “Facebook” to communicate about their political party and present the main advantages of their agenda. The most popular message was direct calls to vote for a certain candidate or party.