Political Advertising on Facebook in Singapore: Who spent what?
Updated: Feb 12
The Singapore Democratic Party spent $8,149 on political ads in the past five months, the most among users in Singapore
The Ministry of Law ran the highest number of ads, at 94 in the past five months.
By Calida Soh and Chandreyee Ray
ILLUSTRATION: LIANG LEI
Scrolling through your Facebook feed, you’re likely to be bombarded advertisements from a wide range of organisations. Some of these advertisements are political content — either produced by individual politicians, political parties, or independent figures who have a message they think is important enough to fuel its circulation with dollars.
For example, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) Facebook page has spent $8,149 on advertising since Sept 2019, running a total of 44 ads. The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), on the other hand, has spent around $300 on six ads in the same duration.
On Facebook, ads concerning politics, elections, or social issues have to be labelled accordingly. They are required to include information about who paid for them, which will be displayed following the “paid for by” label on top of the ad. Advertisers also have to confirm their identity and prove that their primary location is based in Singapore, with several steps including two-factor authentication.
The advertiser even has to answer a phone call from Facebook on a local number. This, Facebook said, was to keep foreign interference in local political advertising at bay. If any of the requirements are missing, they would not be allowed to make new advertisements until rightful corrections are made.
One example of an ad PSP ran is shown below. In it, the 'paid-for' disclaimer identifies it as a political ad. However, if someone were to share this ad onto their own Facebook page, the disclaimer would disappear, since it now becomes ‘organic content’.
SCREENGRAB: PROGRESS SINGAPORE PARTY/FACEBOOK
Not only do such ads require the disclaimers, but the advertiser also has to be based in Singapore to run ads concerning socio-political topics. That means a foreign party or organization would be unable to run Facebook advertisements related to socio-political issues in Singapore such as immigration, crime or LGBT concerns.
Facebook keeps all its advertisements — active and inactive — in an Ad Library, a public archive accessible to all users. An ad library report is also available, providing a range of data such as the amount spent on the ads and the number of impressions made to the demographics and location of these viewers.
Facebook’s ad transparency policy was introduced in Singapore in September 2019, after the same initiative had been implemented in over 50 countries, starting with the US and UK in 2018. In most of these countries, the initiative rolled out in time for a major election. The latest updates added in 2020 include features that would allow viewers of the ad library to see statistics like estimated audience reach for every ad, which gives viewers information about how many people an advertiser wants to reach with each ad.
Here are some of the political parties, individuals, and organizations that have run political advertisements on Facebook in Singapore in the five months since the advertising transparency policy came into operation in Singapore.
The Ministry of Law is the biggest public sector advertiser, running ads like this one promoting their mediation services for neighbour disputes.
SCREENGRAB: MINISTRY OF LAW/FACEBOOK
Next in line is gov.sg, the Singapore government’s official online communication portal, which deals with policy announcements, information and updates. About $4,000 was spent on running the following ad from October to December, with a video of National Development Minister Lawrence Wong making a speech.
Youth.sg, on the other hand, is a website with content for young people in Singapore, and they have spent upwards of $1,000 running ads for their videos and articles on Facebook. Here are some examples of the content they ran ads for, which were categorized under the politicians, elections, and social issues tag.
Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State and MP for the Hong Kah North SMC, spent less than $100 on running an ad about her eco plan for the SMC. This ad only ran for four days under the politicians, elections and social issues tag, but still exists as a regular post.
SCREENGRAB: AMY KHOR/FACEBOOK
Eco-business, a social enterprise championing environmental responsibility, ran a series of ads about their cause.
Real estate agents Marcus and Cecilia Luah ran versions of this ad, promoting their services. Since the ad mentioned social issues like retirement and housing it was categorized under the “social issues, elections or politics” tag.
SCREENGRAB: MARCUS & CECILIA LUAH/FACEBOOK
Since the parameters for ‘social issues’ seem to be quite broad, some of the ads categorized under the “social issues, elections or politics” tag don’t seem immediately obvious. For example, here’s an ad The Comedy Club Asia ran from Jan 28 to Feb 2.
SCREENGRAB: THE COMEDY CLUB ASIA/FACEBOOK
All content has to adhere to Facebook’s community guidelines, which bans things like hate speech, adult nudity, sexual solicitation and even memes which are cruel and insensitive. And while their policies don’t include the removal of fake news, they have other initiatives in place addressing the issue.
Facebook’s advertisements are also reviewed by third-party independent fact-checkers that Facebook enlists to stem the flow of fake news on their platform. Facebook contracts 25 different fact-checking companies in 14 different countries. In Singapore, it is working with international news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) for this service. These certified fact-checkers can review nearly all public Facebook posts, including advertisements, memes and manipulated images.
You can read more about the fact-checking process here.
However, politicians and their ads are generally exempt from this fact-checking process.
"Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that ... political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is," the social media giant wrote in a statement.
"By limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words," it added.
In 2018, Facebook rejected Infocomm Development Media Authority (IMDA)’s request to take down a post containing allegations about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Government, which the IMDA said was prohibited content and undermined public confidence in the state.
Facebook said it did not have any policy that prohibits alleged fake news. In response, the law ministry said this was why legislation against "deliberate online falsehoods" was needed as Facebook could not be relied on to protect Singapore from a "false information campaign".
Enter the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), which came into effect in October 2019. The law was first invoked on a Facebook post by Progress Singapore Party (PSP) member Brad Bowyer, who was directed to correct his statements on investments by GIC, Temasek and other government-linked companies.
Another correction directive was issued to Mr Alex Tan, the owner of the States Times Review Facebook page. Mr Tan had in a Facebook post alleged that the owner of the NUSSU-NUS Students United Facebook page was under police investigation for revealing the religious affiliation of People's Action Party member Rachel Ong.
Mr Tan did not comply and Facebook was instructed by the Government to issue a correction, which the firm displayed at the bottom of the post. "Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information,” read the correction, which was only visible to Singaporean users.
The NUSSU-NUS Students United Facebook page, which was a spoof of the National University of Singapore's Student Union, was eventually also taken down by Facebook. The firm maintained the page was taken down not because of its content, but because it was found to be run by fake accounts — a violation of the social media platform's authenticity policy.
SCREENGRAB: STATES TIMES REVIEW/FACEBOOK
It's intriguing how out of all the political parties in Singapore, only two seem to be employing Facebook’s advertising tools. Most conspicuously, both the ruling party People’s Action Party as well as the leading opposition party, the Workers’ Party, have not run any political advertisements on Facebook since last September. Maybe they feel that their online reach is big enough. Nevertheless, things could still change as elections draw closer.
Tomorrow on Class Notes: After 14 years, former PAP MP and presidential hopeful Dr Tan Cheng Bock has returned to the world of politics with the Progress Singapore Party. But can the young party, so sturdily built on the reputation of its Dr Tan, survive its 79-year-old founder?