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Using social media to influence another country’s elections has become a question of national security in many places. In Latvia, where the parliamentary election campaign will start in four months and propaganda from neighboring Russia is a fact of life, the campaign financing watchdog has little clue what to do.

Graphics by Lote Lārmane

For the last decade, Mārtiņš Kālis, a typical digital native in his 30ties, has seen commercials on TV only when he visits his friends and family. He gets his news on the web and social networks. It was there where he first noticed a local election campaign video ad by the mayor of the capital city, Nils Ušakovs, possibly the most skilled and best financed Latvian politician in terms of social media use.

One out of every three Latvians visit YouTube and Facebook daily.

“It was interesting to watch that video once, but after that, it was much like any other advertisement. I am sure I have seen other ads, but I just don’t remember,” says Mārtiņš. The ad didn’t affect his political choice as he voted in a different municipality.

The campaign for upcoming Latvian parliament elections will officially start on June 9, 2018.

Until then, politicians can publish anything they like on the social media and can pay to reach wider audience without any limits. The party campaign and financing watchdog –  and the current legislation –  allows it. The watchdog is called the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, known by its Latvian acronym as KNAB. The head of the party financing control department at KNAB, Amīlija Jaunskunga, says the political parties have to report only about sponsored posts that were made during the campaign, meaning only four months before the election.

“Money of unknown origin in the election campaign should give KNAB the largest headache this year,” says Iveta Kazoka, a researcher at the Latvian think-tank Providus. “The National Security Council should also join in solving this problem because the biggest worry this year is not about parties cheating, but the threat to national security and the election process as a whole.”

According to the law, each party is allowed to spend a little over half million euros in the upcoming election campaign.

Scroll, Forrest, scroll!

In Latvia, more people use social networks daily than read newspapers or listen to the radio. Only television remains more popular (click here to see graphics).

YouTube and Facebook consistently remain in the top three most visited sites in Latvia. Last year, the most popular TV program was a game between Latvia and Sweden in the ice hockey world championship. It drew 246,000 people. At the same time, 706,000 Latvian users visit YouTube daily.

Graphics by Lote Lārmane

KNAB says that spending on the Internet advertising is tiny, compared to the total campaign expenses. In the municipal elections last year, party For Latvian Development spent 11,000 euros on internet advertising, and that is the record among them all (if we assume the parties declared all spending).

However, Re:Baltica analysis shows that the total money spent on internet campaign ads was not that small — around 117,000 euros or 10.6 percent of all campaign spending on advertisement. It was more than they spent on self promotion in nation-wide press, public broadcasting or commercial TVs.

Regional parties, like For Latvia and Ventspils and Party of Liepāja did not spend a penny while the national parties, like Unity and National Alliance spent thousands, mostly on Facebook.

Graphics by Lote Lārmane

KNAB counts all digital advertising together and does not separate what was paid for social media. “We simply don’t collect that kind of information. We may think of a way to separate spending on social networks for the next elections in 2018,” says Jaunskunga.

Houston, We Have a Problem

The problem does not lay with the law on campaign financing: it is strict enough. Media must submit the ad prices to KNAB before May 9, otherwise they are not allowed to advertise. Political parties and media must report on their agreements to KNAB. To verify that the submitted information matches the reality, KNAB orders media monitoring. “We have a well-established system. We monitor pre-election period everywhere: the media, the political parties and the third parties,” says Jaunskunga.

However, since Facebook and YouTube are located outside of Latvia, they don’t submit information about local politicians’ deals with their platforms and the watchdog doesn’t know what to do. “We cannot forbid them to do anything because they are outside the Latvian jurisdiction.”

KNAB refuses to answer precise questions about what exactly it has done to obtain the data and what has been the response of the social media giants as “revealing the methods would hurt its work”. This lack of transparency doesn’t allow to verify whether the campaign financing watchdog has even tried to do something substantial.

Riga mayor Nils Ušakovs started to promote his Facebook posts at least ten months before the election. They are paid by Harmony. For how much – Ušakovs didn’t answer. Screenshot from Facebook.

Latvia sent 12 information requests about 11 accounts to Facebook within first half of 2017, which does not feel a lot. At that time, the municipal election campaign was in full swing. It is unclear if any of these requests were made by KNAB. Twitter posts did not interest the local investigators at all.

The second significant factor that limits the watchdog’s control over social network ads is the advertiser’s ability to select a target audience by interests, education, etc. If you are not in the target audience, much like KNAB, you won’t be able to see an ad.

“It is hard to identify those cases when a candidate or a person, or a legal entity makes a paid post or publishes paid material that contains election campaigning,” says Jaunskunga. It is nearly impossible to independently monitor that information, either. “The internet is a problem .. but no one has a solution. We don’t have a clear solution, either.”

Jaunskunga says that “you cannot unequivocally say that KNAB cannot do anything.” Parties themselves try to catch their competitors and inform the watchdog which then investigates. With a court permission, it can demand bank account information to verify if the payments were made to Facebook.

After the municipal elections in 2017, KNAB claims it collected bank account information, but again declines to give more details. It closed 205 investigations about the possible violation of campaign finance rules, but is unable to answer how many were about the social networks.

A way around the spending limits

Jānis Polis, a marketing specialist and a blogger, says that Latvian politicians use social networks more often because there is a bigger chance to evade from the legally-set limits on campaign spending. “KNAB cannot completely control investment in advertisement on several social media platforms,” says Polis, who has experience working on political campaigns, including for mayor of Riga, but has not been involved the last two years.

Where political parties advertised in the last elections. Click on the photo to view it in full size! Graphics by Lote Lārmane

Parties use social media to attract younger voters. For example, For Latvian Development party advertises on Facebook to those who are socially-active and are between 20 and 40 years of age, says the party secretary general Viesturs Liepkalns. “Our voter is younger. We cannot survive without social networks,” he says.

The ruling Union of Farmers and Greens (UFG), which draws support from older generation that lives mostly outside of the Latvian capital and are not known to be avid users of social networks, also buys ads on Facebook. “We did it because it carries an important presence effect: to be where people are. Secondly, mass media, which our voter consumes, are also influenced by social networks,” says UFG representative Artūrs Graudiņš.

Hard to monitor

Researcher Iveta Kažoka says that KNAB hadn’t explained to participants in the election campaign what actions are considered legal and what are not. The secretary general of National Alliance, Raivis Zeltīts, says that during the last campaign in 2017 party asked the watchdog how to account for that spending. The answer arrived literally at the last minute.

“It is difficult to say how much really is spent on political advertisement on the internet. If we accept that parties report this information accurately, the question still remains whether there were expenses that were not reported to parties themselves,” says Kažoka. There is “a very high risk” that anyone can buy an ads on social media to help or harm the chances of the competitors. “KNAB is capable to compare boxes in reports of what parties spent and what media received. But I haven’t seen a case when KNAB was capable of resolving a non-standard situation,” she concludes.

Fear of meddling

Fears about the foreign meddling in election campaign lately has become a feature in the US and European elections. Facebook testimony to the US Congress revealed that the Russian company Internet Research Agency spent 100,000 US dollars on 3000 ads on Facebook  and Instagram ahead of the US presidential elections in 2016. It is a relatively small amount, but fake news distributed on the social media by these ads reached up to 150 million people.

The social media ads Russia wanted Americans to see. Source: POLITICO

By making fake profiles on Facebook, Russian intelligence services tried to spy on the election campaign of French president Emmanuel Macron. The social network closed tens of thousands fake Facebook accounts ahead of the parliamentary elections in Germany.

Facebook essentially did not answer a request from the UK to provide an analysis of possible Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum. It angered politicians and government agencies. Now the social network intends to conduct deep research whether the Russian agents used its platform to spread fake news with a goal to influence the outcome of Brexit referendum.

The head of the NATO Strategic Communication Center (NATO StratCom) Jānis Sārts predicts that a possibility that Russia may try to influence elections in Latvia exists, but it is small. “I don’t think the possibility is large because, from a Russian perspective, there are other influence instruments that are available to them,” he says.

Hope springs eternal

So far social media giants have been ready to provide information only in criminal cases, but KNAB controls campaign financing administratively, says Jaunskunga. She has not lost hope yet and mentions of the promise of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to make political advertisement more transparent.

Zuckerberg’s announcement was followed by others: Facebook users can check whether they were targets of ads by the Internet Research Agency; those who submit political ads must confirm their identity and clearly show who paid for it. But for now, these options are either not available in Latvia or still in the works.

Similar situation is developing in neighboring Lithuania and Estonia, where the watchdogs admit there is a problem.

No changes in the legislation in Latvia to solve these issues are expected before the general elections in this October. A parliamentary committee has agreed not to change the rules in the middle of the game.

For the time being, KNAB hopes that doubling financing for media monitoring and new technical equipment will allow it to control campaign ads in the social media better. The agency also plans to create an interactive map showing parties’ current expenditures to the spending limits, thus allowing voters to report possible violations.

Meanwhile, politicians can continue to promise to make Latvia great again to gain votes. “Elections in Riga worried me as though everyone was like a supermarket — offering discounts, deals. There were few ads on substance or new ideas,” says Mārtiņš Kālis. Even though he hadn’t noticed that political ads would impact him, he admits, “most likely, they do.”

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Text: Aija Krūtaine
Illustration: Raivis Vilūns
Graphics: Lote Lārmane, Re:Baltica
Translation to English: Aleksejs Tapiņš
Editor: Sanita Jemberga, Re:Baltica

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