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Digest: Social media a loophole to covertly fund election campaigns

Holger Roonemaa.
Holger Roonemaa. Source: Eesti Meedia/Scanpix

Though the funding of Estonia's political parties as well as their election campaigns is relatively strictly regulated, there is currently a loophole: anyone can pay and run political advertising on social media. While nothing is currently being done about it here, Latvia has begun addressing the issue.

In an op-ed published on Monday (link in Estonian), journalist Holger Roonemaa points out that to use this loophole no complex schemes are necessary, no money needs to be carried around in plastic bags.

The Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK), already chronically overworked and underfunded, has no way to so much as check how much money parties and candidates spend on social media marketing, and who exactly pays for it.

As Roonemaa puts it, this isn't an issue that concerns petty cash, as in last year's local elections the parties spent more than half a million euros of their declared campaign budgets on digital marketing. This includes space bought on the as well as web portals as well as advertising that ran on Facebook and Youtube.

Want to donate without anyone declaring it? Pay for a Facebook campaign

How much money the parties spent on social media can't be traced, as the declaration of campaign spending doesn't include such a category, but instead only requires parties to talk about "Internet advertising."

The committee doesn't ask for anything more, and the law doesn't require it to do so either, as its main focus is on parties' income rather than spending. Though there is an exception, namely what the candidates themselves declare.

Candidates' own contributions to campaigns are just a fraction of what any party spends leading up to an election. But in the case of last year's local polls, hundreds of invoices for Facebook advertising were submitted to the committee.

Most of them are in the range of some €50-100, but there are exceptions. Reform Party MP and former minister of foreign affairs, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, spent more than €7,000 on Facebook advertising. Minister of Health and Labour Jevgeni Ossinovski (SDE) spent some €3,000, too.

Roonemaa points out that those are the sums that candidates spent personally and that there is a very high probability that the parties themselves spent many times more.

No telling who may be behind a campaign

With Facebook at the receiving end of these payments, the candidates and parties' money leaves Estonia, which means the Estonian authorities have little to no control over it. And Facebook is highly unlikely to ever reveal who exactly paid for what voluntarily.

Which makes all kinds of arrangements possible, for instance the following:

  • Candiate X advertises on Facebook, but the bill is paid using Businessman Y's credit card
  • Party X comes up with a social media campaign, but lets a supporter pay for it who doesn't want to be publicly associated with the party
  • A well-meaning (or hostile) person runs a campaign in favor or against a candidate or party. Such a person could easily be associated e.g. with a neighboring country interested in causing a stir

The last point, according to Roonemaa, is particularly interesting. There is a precedent of a decision by the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) that states that such support is neither political advertising, nor is it an illicit donation to a political party.

The situation PPA resolved with this decision concerned a campaign by SAPTK, the foundation of family values activist Varro Voglaid. The foundation ran sponsored posts that asked people to vote for the Estonian Conservative People's Party (EKRE) leading up to last year's local elections.

This means that we are looking at a loophole that offers a perfectly legal way to inject undeclared political donations into parties' campaign budgets as well as opens the floodgates for political manipulation on the part of a foreign organization, or individuals abroad that may well be working against Estonia's interests.

Among other things, to make campaign funding more transparent this is the kind of data parties should be required to submit:

  • An overview of their spending on social media by channel
  • The adverts they actually used, along with their designs
  • The target groups of their social media campaigns

Countries should react, Latvia taking initial steps

Thanks to the option e.g. Facebook offers to target audiences with extreme precision, a long time could pass before anyone even noticed a campaign that is running directed at a certain target group.

Roonemaa's example is a hypothetical attempt at replacing the Center Party as the dominant political force in the mainly Russian-speaking areas of Ida-Viru County: a campaign could be run alleging that the Center Party has "sold out" the Russian community there, and that voters should go for another party instead.

Referring to conversations he has had with people at Facebook, Roonemaa hints that the company can likely be expected to implement measures aimed at greater transparency also internationally once their investigation of campaigns and manipulations during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is complete.

Whether or not this will eventually happen is impossible to say, Roonemaa thinks. But there is no doubt that the Estonian party financing watchdog should take the matter very seriously.

Latvia has taken initial steps to address the problem. KNAB, the country's Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, also has the task to keep an eye on how the political parties are financed. Its director, Jekabs Straume, announced last week in the Saeima that if Facebook continued to ignore the authority's requests for information, Latvia could consider taking the social network offline for some time.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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