By Cherry Salazar
Candidates’ ads on Facebook have so far remained small relative to their total ad spending. The popular social media platform’s ad monitoring tool does not include payments to influencers tapped to endorse candidates, however.
Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo topped ad spending on Facebook among all candidates, although the popular social media platform have accounted for small percentages of election aspirants’ spending to date.
Robredo, the opposition bet for president, spent P14.1 million on the platform from Aug. 4, 2020, when the transparency tool was activated, until Dec. 31, 2021, a review of the social media platform’s Ad Library showed.
The amount represented only 12% of her total spending on ads in traditional media from January to September 2021 (P120 million), based on published rate cards. Nielsen data showed that candidates have so far still poured most of their money on traditional media.
The bulk of Robredo’s Facebook ads went live after she filed her candidacy in October 2021 following months of speculation if she was running for the top post.
“We have to maximize our online presence. The fact of the matter is we really have a lot of ground to make up for,” lawyer Barry Gutierrez, Robredo’s spokesperson, told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in a phone interview.
He said the ads were paid for by volunteers who had coordinated with the campaign team to either boost the official posts of the vice president or produce original materials to promote her candidacy.
“The campaign itself has not actually spent anything on ads. [They] were actually paid for by volunteer groups,” he said.
Robredo defeated former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in the 2016 vice-presidential race, but the December 2021 Pulse Asia presidential survey showed that Marcos was ahead with 53% compared with Robredo’s 20%. Marcos led in all geographic locations and sociodemographics.
While early ads have been criticized as premature campaigning, the Robredo campaign felt compelled to join the fray. “If everyone is doing it, hindi ka pwedeng hindi sumabay kahit papaano (you cannot not match others’ spending),” Gutierrez said, pointing out that other candidates had started spending as early as a year before the elections.
“Madaming ibang campaign (Many other campaign teams), particularly ang (the) Bongbong Marcos campaign, they’ve really invested heavily in social media,” he said.
Marcos: Zero FB ads, lots of memes
In comparison, Marcos, the survey leader, has not recorded any ad spending on Facebook so far.
But this is not surprising because Marcos prefers meme wars over ads, said Jonathan Ong, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has studied disinformation networks in the region.
“Political ads are traditionally effective in conveying candidates’ general proposition and branding — but they can end up sounding generic and inauthentic. BBM is more invested in the “meme wars” and campaigning via political fan groups, community pages, and micro-influencers,” Ong told the PCIJ in an e-mail, referring to Marcos’s initials.
Facebook’s Ad Library is a public database of ads that ran on the social media platform owned by the company that now goes by the name Meta. It provides details such as the content of the ads, how much was spent to boost the ads, and who were targeted to see the ads.
However, the Ad Library does not detail how much candidates spent to produce the ads and payments to social media experts who managed their accounts. It also does not cover payments to “influencers” tapped to endorse candidates on Facebook.
Marcos had long been accused of maintaining propaganda networks to push a revisionist version of Martial Law history and cover up the legacy of his father’s brutal dictatorship.
“My own digital ethnography of pro-BBM accounts on Twitter as well as private messaging apps reveals that they have never stopped pushing the ‘Marcos era as golden age’ narrative and at the same time continued to attack [those] whom they call the ‘pinklawans,’” said Ong.
“It’s not that BBM is not spending on political advertising; their campaign is strategically investing in influencer marketing and community mobilization which appear more organic and authentic,” said Ong.
Ong said regulation and monitoring by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) should focus beyond political ads.
Other groups have called on Facebook to also monitor disinformation peddled by influencers during the campaign.
Marcos has denied allegations that his campaign maintains troll farms, attributing his popularity on the social media platform to “real” supporters. “I do not have troll (farms). I do not boost (my social media pages) because netizens are smart. They would know,” Marcos was quoted saying in October 2021.
Robredo’s spending up sixfold after COC filing
Robredo’s camp has spent a total of P14.1 million on Facebook ads as of Dec. 31, 2021.
The amount covered ads launched by Robredo’s official page and by two other pages pushed prominently by her official pages “Team Leni Robredo” and “Dapat si Leni.”
The bulk of Robredo’s ads on the social media platform went live after she filed her candidacy, between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, 2021. These ads amounted to P6.24 million, or triple the total spending of the two pages (P1.9 million) as of Sept. 30, 2021. This sum included ads placed by the “Team Leni Robredo” page.
Robredo’s ad spending in December 2021, which included those placed by both the “Team Leni Robredo” and “Dapat si Leni’” pages, totaled P5.98 million. This, too, was triple the amount she had spent on the platform before the filing of certificates of candidacy (COCs) in October.
Prior to the filing of COCs, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, who is running for reelection, was consistently the top spender on Facebook. Robredo soared past Gatchalian by year end.
PCIJ also found separate clusters of support pages for Robredo ahead of the filing of COCs. As of Sept. 30, 2021, at least 47 different pages owned by Robredo’s supporters had paid for Facebook ads.
Many of these pages “geo-targeted” followers. The pages included “Batangueño Para kay Leni Robredo,” “Leni, Tingog sang Ilonggo” (now “Ilonggo Para Kay Leni Robredo”), “SOLID LENI BICOL,” and “Akeanon, Kay Leni Eang Maboto.”
Thirty-three out of the 47 pages were managed by only two individuals. Most of these pages disclosed that they were made “by Team Leni Robredo volunteers… who support and truly believe in Leni Robredo’s leadership.”
“Geo-targeting,” which utilizes location data to target an ad’s audience, is a form of “micro-targeting.” Comelec Resolution No. 10730, prohibits its use for electoral ads.
While these Robredo support pages remained active, many did not place ads on Facebook after the filing of COCs.
Instead, 64 other support pages boosted ads for Robredo from October to December 2021 — the most number of support pages for any 2022 bet so far, the PCIJ found.
All the “support” pages covered in PCIJ’s tally explicitly endorsed a particular candidate in their names, descriptions, and posts. PCIJ did not include Facebook pages that did not overtly express their endorsement of a candidate, even if they were amplifying a candidate’s online campaign materials and messages.
Lacson hikes spending in August
The other presidential aspirant who recorded considerable spending on Facebook was Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson.
The senator has spent a total of P5.14 million on Facebook ads as of Sept. 30, 2021, and another P222,125 over the next three months — putting his total spending on Facebook at P5.36 million as of Dec. 31, 2021.
Social media accounted for at least 2.6% of Lacson’s total ad spending before he filed his candidacy. He spent P182.13 million on ads in traditional media during the period.
Lacson increased ad spending on Facebook in August or two months before he filed his COC. He had announced his presidential bid while Robredo, who would get the endorsement of 1Sambayan opposition group, was still hoping to lead “unity talks” that would choose a common opposition candidate.
Lacson dismissed the talks after his earlier suggestion was rejected. He wanted all potential opposition candidates to file their COCs in October but withdraw in favor of the candidate who would lead in the polls before the end of the year.
In his ads, Lacson highlighted his crime-fighting record, citing his stint as chief of the Philippine National Police from 1999 to 2001. Tough talk on crime helped propel Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016.
While Lacson slowed down on ad spending after he filed his COC, his supporters spent as much as P4.42 million on posts endorsing his presidential bid. The bulk of this amount was spent in November and December 2021, and could be traced back to the “Ping Lacson Army” page.
By year end, the ad spending of Lacson’s supporters on the platform was equivalent to 82% of the ad spending on his official page.
Lacson filed his candidacy under the Partido para sa Demokratikong Reporma (Partido Reporma), the campaign vehicle used by ex-defense chief Renato de Villa in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1998. It’s Lacson’s second attempt at the presidency, after he lost to Gloria Arroyo in 2004.
Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, who topped ad spending in traditional media before the filing of candidacies, recorded zero spending on Facebook until November 2021. By the end of the year, he had spent a meager P5,031 on the platform.
But Moreno’s supporters spent P2.28 million to promote him on Facebook. He was one of many other aspirants who placed few to no ads at all on their official Facebook pages but whose “support” pages churned out hundreds of paid posts.
PCIJ found 36 different pages boosting posts promoting Moreno’s campaign. These posts were paid for by only 16 individuals and groups, which included a digital marketing agency and a Cebu-based group of restaurants.
The rest of the presidential candidates did not have as many ads on the social media platform.
Sen. Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao spent less than P1 million (P347,059).
Labor leader Leody de Guzman spent a small sum, P11,500, on Facebook ads. Of this amount, P11,000 worth of ads was posted only in December 2021.
Gatchalian leads among Senate candidates
Gatchalian continued to top overall spending on Facebook among 2022 aspirants for senator.
His official Facebook page spent more than P7 million in ads before the filing of COCs, and another P1.55 million in the next three months.
Most of these ads linked back to Gatchalian’s website and presented his stand on issues concerning education and energy. Gatchalian chairs the Senate education and energy committees.
Former senators seeking a comeback also paid for ads on Facebook to make their social media presence felt ahead of the COC filing.
On their official Facebook pages, Antique Rep. Loren Legarda — who was the first to file her COC before the poll body on Oct. 1, 2021 — spent more than P3.7 million for 558 ads, while former senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV spent less than a million pesos for 27 ads.
Legarda and Trillanes spent P1.18 million and P185,000, respectively, over the next three months.
But among Senate aspirants, detained Sen. Leila de Lima spent the most in the three months following the COC filing.
From October to December 2021, de Lima placed ads amounting to P1.3 million, or nearly double a year’s worth of her ad spending, or from August 2020 to September 2021.
Other Senate aspirants also had supporters pay for ads to promote their campaigns on Facebook.
Pages supporting former House speaker and Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, who is gunning for a Senate comeback, coughed up P2.2 million on the platform. More than half of this amount (P1.51 million) was spent before the filing of COCs, when he was still considering a presidential bid.
Pages supporting former Public Works and Highways secretary Mark Villar, who is joining the Senate race under the ticket of ruling party PDP-Laban, also paid Facebook to boost their posts.
Villar’s supporters spent P893,842 on thousands of Facebook ads, while Villar, whose family is among the country’s richest, dispensed only P25,530 on his official page.
Some candidates for local posts also shelled out at least a million pesos on Facebook ads.
Father and son Luis Raymund “LRay” and Miguel Luis “Migz” Villafuerte, who are gunning for separate congressional seats in Camarines Sur, spent P1.34 million and P1.16 million, respectively, ahead of the filing of COCs.
Both Villafuertes had no recorded spending on the platform from October to December 2021.
Cagayan de Oro City mayoral hopeful Jose Gabriel “Pompee” La Viña placed P1.14 million worth of ads on the platform: P839,685 of this amount was spent on the platform as of Sept. 30, 2021, while the remaining P300,782 was spent in October 2021.
His official page had no recorded spending in the months of November and December 2021.
La Viña, who was the social media director of Duterte’s 2016 campaign, will be joining the mayoralty race as a substitute candidate. He filed his COC on Nov. 12, 2021.
Other top spenders in the local political scene were Leyte Rep. Lolita Karen Javier (P1.12 million) and Navotas Rep. John Rey Tiangco (P743,427). Javier is seeking reelection, while Tiangco wants to replace his brother Tobias “Toby” as Navotas mayor.
Politicians who eventually decided not to run in the 2022 elections also placed ads on Facebook. As of Sept. 30, the top spenders were House Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto (P2.18 million), Cabinet Secretary and Palace spokesperson Karlo Nograles (P616,102), and Sen. Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” Marcos (P430,981).
Up to 48% of Filipino adults get their news on politics from the internet, based on a September 2021 survey of Pulse Asia. It’s statistically tied with radio, which 49% of the respondents said was the source of their news.
Television remained the top source of news, with 91% of respondents saying they get their news on the traditional media platform. — with additional interviews by Carmela Fonbuena/PCIJ