Have candidates been transparent about their campaign spending on social media?
In the 2019 elections, only 16 out of 62 or about a quarter of candidates for senator declared social media-related spending in their Statements of Election Contributions and Expenditures (SOCEs), a review by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) showed.
It underscores the difficulty of monitoring campaign spending on the internet, which campaign finance reform advocates said would become a big challenge in the 2022 elections.
Candidates are expected to maximize exposure on social media, which have increasingly become voters’ go-to sources of information on the elections, and amid mobility restrictions because of the pandemic.
Former senator Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV, who lost his 2019 reelection bid, was the top spender based on candidates’ SOCEs. He spent P6.62 million on social media. He is now the campaign manager of presidential candidate Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.
Aquino was followed by Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, President Rodrigo Duterte’s top aide, and human rights lawyer Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno, who spent P5.57 million and P3.49 million, respectively.
Aquino’s social media spending accounted for just 5.26% of his total campaign expenses in 2019, while Go’s and Diokno’s accounted for 3.45% and 13.25% of their total budgets, respectively.
Only six of the 12 winning candidates specified ad expenditures on the internet. Apart from Go, they are senators Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, Ramon Bong Revilla Jr., Pilar Juliana “Pia” Cayetano, Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” Marcos, and Maria Lourdes Nancy Binay.
Only six of the 16 candidates declared expenditures of more than P1 million online. Others declared a few hundred thousand pesos or less than P5,000.
Aquino and Diokno, along with two other defeated candidates, former senator Juan Ponce Enrile and former Bayan Muna representative Neri Colmenares, spent more than winning candidates Cayetano, Marcos, and Binay.
‘Not reflective of reality’
The declared expenses can’t be true, said Rona Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente). “This is not reflective of the 2019 campaigning reality.”
“A cursory look at the list of individuals who ran for the Senate in [the 2019 elections] would show us that more than 16 candidates in the list were serious candidates. One could reasonably expect that they had social media spending in this election,” Caritos said.
Candidates are required by law to submit their SOCEs 30 days after the elections. They must declare all expenses incurred during the 90-day campaign period. In 2019, the campaign period started on Feb. 12, 2019 and ended on May 11, 2019.
The SOCEs didn’t cover expenditures before the campaign period because, under Republic Act No. 9369, a person who filed a certificate of candidacy is only considered a “candidate” at the start of the campaign period.
Caritos said this was “a gap in the law” because candidates usually spent a lot, especially on ads, before the campaign period. The SOCEs, she said, thus “paint an incomplete picture of the total spending of candidates, whether in the offline or online world,” Caritos said.
The six winning senatorial candidates who didn’t specify any spending on social media were senators Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, Lito Lapid, Francis Tolentino, and Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III.
Pimentel told PCIJ he did not place ads on online platforms because he was “not yet a believer of social media back in 2019.”
“But now I tell and advise people that I almost lost in 2019 because I didn’t pay attention to social media. Lesson learned,” he said.
PCIJ also reached out to the other senatorial candidates but they had yet to respond as of this writing.
It doesn’t mean Pimentel or the other candidates had no social media presence during the 2019 campaign.
Only those whose campaigns paid for social media ads needed to report their spending, said former Comelec commissioner Luie Guia. “Others may have engaged users who have free accounts to make posts, tweets, comments, etc. favorable to the candidates,” he said.
Here lies another challenge, Guia said. Even if some social media users were compensated to endorse candidates, Guia said this “would very likely be unreported, and it is almost impossible for Comelec to discover this on their own.”
Apart from the candidates, “social media contractors” or those who were paid to either endorse the campaign or the defeat of a candidate, were required to disclose their transactions under Comelec Resolution No. 10488. These included companies providing internet-related services.
Only Facebook submitted a report after the 2019 polls, however, according to Efraim Bag-id, head of the poll body’s campaign finance office.
YouTube, Google, and other platforms did not.
Among traditional media, broadcast firms have regularly reported advertising contracts with candidates during the 90-day campaign period.
The same must be required of all technological platforms, said Caritos. “The purpose of reporting is to assist Comelec in validating SOCEs submitted by candidates and political parties,” she said.
A penalty should be imposed to force internet companies to report, she added.
Youtube, Facebook take bulk of spending
In 2019, candidates focused their spending on Youtube and Facebook, a trend that is expected to continue in the 2022 elections because of the popularity of these platforms in the Philippines.
Aquino spent P5.55 million on YouTube advertisements, accounting for 84% of his social media expenses in 2019.
He spent another P1.05 million on Facebook and P17,416 on Google search placements.
Aquino’s SOCE declared lump-sum expenditures, providing little detail on how they were spent on the social media platforms.
Go, Angara, and Colmenares gave more detailed reports.
Go declared total social media expenses of P5.57 million, all for Facebook ads.
Based on his SOCE, Go’s transactions averaged P50,000 per day at the outset of the campaign period, which then increased to as much as P200,000 daily as election day drew closer.
Documents submitted by Go showed that his “social media boosting” were “in-kind” contributions from three individuals: Johnny Lee Ng (P2.89 million), Kenneth Go Ang (P1.47 million), and Belinda Yu Liu (P1.4 million).
Ng and Liu, based on Go’s Statements of Assets, Liabilities, and Net Worth (SALNs) in 2016 and 2017, were his “creditors.” They were also his top campaign donors in 2019.
Based on their SOCEs, Diokno’s and Angara’s social media-related expenditures were also solely on Facebook.
Unlike Go who quadrupled his Facebook spending toward the end of the campaign period, Angara retained his average spending of P50,000 per transaction, although he increased the frequency of his ads from weekly to daily.
Revilla’s SOCE also showed a lump-sum transaction of P2.44 million for “Facebook ads,” his only social media-related expense based on his declaration. He tapped Aeon World Group Corp., which received a “retainers fee” of P200,000, to run his social media campaign in 2019.
Caritos and Guia said the Comelec’s Campaign Finance Office needed to work with various online platforms to audit and verify if candidates for the 2022 elections were correctly reporting their expenses.
Facebook launched the Ad Library in 2019. It’s a publicly available tool that tracks pages paying for political ads, the persons paying for them, the amounts they paid, and the demographics of targeted users, among other information.
Google announced that it was pausing election ads for the 2022 campaign, a move lauded by some quarters.
Candidates have already spent hundreds of millions on ads in traditional and social media months ahead of the campaign period, which begins on Feb. 8 and March 25 for national candidates (including party-list groups) and for local candidates, respectively. END
Illustration: Jose Luigi Almuena
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