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Orbán leads the way in EU election advertising

Orbán leads the way in EU election advertising

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Orbán leads the way in EU election advertising

Politicians and parties have been ramping up their spending on online ads in a final mad dash for votes ahead of this week’s European Parliament election.

But none has gone as big as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, outspending everyone on Google’s platforms and its network of 35 million websites, and on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, used by more than half of Europeans.

Far-right national parties have also banked on YouTube and Google to promote their ideas, such as cracking down on excessive migration to the bloc or attacking their political opponents. They’ve also railed against Brussels’ support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion. But newcomers and national parties connected to the European People’s Party, Social Democrats and the Greens have still found enviable spots in the great digital ad game.

While it’s been almost impossible for voters in countries like Poland, Belgium and Romania to escape an onslaught of online political ads, it’s unclear whether the millions of euros spent on advertising in recent weeks will be enough to grab the attention — and the votes — of Europeans scrolling their Instagram feeds or looking for information on Google Search.

A study in April showed that political advertising on social media could sway election results, but new European tech and privacy laws have also made it harder for politicians to target and influence smaller groups of people based on specific demographics and interests.

POLITICO combed through Google and Meta’s public ad repositories and nonprofit WhoTargetsMe’s data to get a picture of what’s happening across the bloc ahead of June 6-9. 

Here are the main takeaways:

Fidesz is outspending everyone in the EU … and beyond 

With a population of just under 10 million, Hungary is by no means the European Union’s biggest country. But in the world of political online advertising, the Central European country — and especially Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz ruling party — are by far the Continent’s largest players.

In recent weeks, political ad buys by Fidesz and Orbán have even, collectively, outdone similar spending for entire countries, like Spain.

In the build-up to the European Parliament election, as well as Hungary’s local elections, to be held at the same time, Fidesz has bought the most ads on both Google and Meta’s platforms, based on euros spent, compared with any other political party across the 27-country bloc. If you throw in direct spending by Orbán and others associated with his government, that figure gets even more acute.

None of these paid-for messages are subtle: In ad after ad, Fidesz has portrayed its left-wing opponents as beholden to Brussels and mega-donors like George Soros. In others, the far-right political party has positioned itself as the “peace party,” accusing opponents of favoring war. That’s a direct reference to Orbán’s support for Russia, whose conflict with Ukraine he’d prefer to see end — mostly in favor of President Vladimir Putin.

There are also domestic politics at play. Ever since Péter Magyar, a former Fidesz member, split from Orbán’s party, online political ads targeting the 43-year-old face of the anti-Orbán movement have repeatedly made their way onto Facebook, Instagram and Google, based on the companies’ online transparency tools. 

Far-right national parties spend big on Google’s platforms

“Protect women and girls! The West votes AfD,” says an ad by Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany, with a young blonde woman looking to the side, seemingly worried, on a nighttime street. 

The ad is one among about 90 others that AfD bought in the last month, spending more money on Google and its ad network of up to 35 million websites and apps than any other German political party. According to Google’s public repository, the far-right party spent as much as €108,000 in May for the ads. They were shown at least 90 million times in Germany, according to conservative estimates by Google and compiled by POLITICO. 

When the largest spenders on political ads in each EU country are ranked, seven out of the top 10 national spenders were right-wing and far-right parties including Hungary’s Fidesz, Germany’s AfD, Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Sweden Democrats, Poland’s Law and Justice, the Brothers of Italy, and Spain’s Vox. 

Ads including messages ranging from attacks on political rivals’ “climate fanaticism” and calls to stop “the invasion” of migrants to touting credentials in the “fight against Islamization” were shown at least 28 million times. Other themes included stopping the “EU madness” with the war in Ukraine, fighting crime, protecting traditions, and standing up for small businesses.

In comparison, top political spenders on Meta in the countries with the most campaign ad spending were more diverse, with three right-wing and far-right parties, like Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, topping the charts alongside Spain, Italy, and Sweden’s socialist and social-democratic parties. 

Newer parties and some far-right parties “see an opportunity where they don’t have access to the traditional media as easily,” said Sam van der Staak, director of the Europe program for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an organization with 35 countries supporting global democracy.

Far-right and right-wing parties together spent the most money on Google ads among the group of top-spending parties in the EU’s 27 member countries. Parties connected to the Identity and Democracy (ID) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) groups accounted for the largest share of spending on digital ads for the group, with over 40 percent of ad money. When adding Orban’s Fidesz, such parties were responsible for over 60 percent of ad money. 

Some countries spend more than others

Depending on where you are in the EU, you may be inundated with online political ads or, thankfully, spared the partisan onslaught.

In France, local law forbids political ads, including those online, six months before any election. That means while the social media companies register a smattering of paid-for messages — less than €1,000 for all of France, for instance — these ads are not directly tied to the election. Instead, they are bought by campaigning groups or local government agents to promote specific interests that, in the eyes of Big Tech, constitute “issue-based” advertising that must be included in their transparency registers.

Other European voters haven’t been so lucky, particularly in some countries that will hold national or municipal elections on top of the EU vote. 

In Belgium, the country with one of the largest ad spends behind Hungary, the far-right Flemish party Vlaams Belang has for months been one of the biggest spenders on social media ads, based on data provided by Google and Meta. 

That includes more than €100,000 spent by the party’s leader, Tom Van Grieken, alone over the last month on Facebook and Instagram. Based on Meta’s transparency data, the Flemish politician has targeted both young and old voters, spending between €1,000 and €3,500, respectively, on ads that each garnered hundreds of thousands of views. But beyond the far right, almost all parties and candidates — from the far-left Workers’ Party (PTB/PVDA) to the Greens — have thrown some cash to reach out to more potential voters online. 

Another big-spending country is Romania. Between April 27 and May 26, the latest figures available, the top spending political party earmarked around €250,000 collectively, for both Meta- and Google-based ads. The top individual candidate spender on Meta’s platforms was current Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolac, though he barely mentioned the June 6-9 European Parliament vote in his paid-for messages. Instead, the social-democratic politician championed efforts to reindustrialize the country, as well as attempts to boost its economic growth.

“Some countries are just more traditional,” said International IDEA’s van der Staak.“Political parties in Hungary, Poland and Romania jumped on online campaigning early and more massively.”

Some countries like Romania and Poland also have generous political financial regimes, where national parties receive more funding from the state, leaving them with more cash to advertise online relative to countries like France and Portugal, which have stricter funding regulations, he said. 

The EPP rules the digital ads game on Meta 

No matter where you are in the EU, the odds are you’ll see more ads on Facebook and Instagram coming from parties and candidates connected to the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). 

With over €550,000 spent in the last month, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s political allies have been using some of their funding to spread their message on Facebook and Instagram — each estimated to be used by around 260 million Europeans — according to data from Meta gathered by NGO WhoTargetsMe. 

Led by Belgium’s Christian Democrat and Flemish party (CD&V) and Les Engagés, which collectively spent over €250,000 in their country, other top EPP-connected spenders included Forza Italia, Austria’s Volkspartei and Romania’s National Liberal Party (PNL). Ads included messages promoting cutting back on environmental regulation for farmers, fewer taxes and protecting families.

“We must stop arms, drugs and organized crime moving across Europe’s borders,” said an ad showing Swedish EPP lawmaker Tomas Tobé, who is running with Moderaterna. 

Another video ad from Austria’s VolksPartei paints a dreary picture, with overflowing dumping grounds, an elderly man counting coins in a cramped apartment, and a child and men with weapons. A message in the post warns of an “ÖXIT demanded by the FPÖ and the plans of the SPÖ to plunge Europe into chaos …”

After EPP-connected ads, 78 parties and candidates with the Greens and the European Free Alliance, including German, Belgian and Swedish national member parties and Volt’s Dutch party, have collectively spent over €430,000. Social Democrats were the third-largest spender, in part with ads promoted through candidates like Hungary’s Klára Dobrev and Molnár Csaba and Romania’s Marcel Ciolacu. 

There’s a lot more going on than political parties

Some political parties like Fidesz or Vlaams Belang are getting help from not-for-profit organizations or media outlets to spread their ideas. Mediaworks, owned by Fidesz-friendly businessmen, bought about 219 ads on Google, many of which related to Orbán’s political opponent Péter Magyar, including an ad that also reshared false information claiming EPP chair Manfred Weber wanted to introduce military conscription in the EU. 

Politically attached organizations behind parties have also helped raise support. Vrijheidsfonds, a nonprofit supportingVlaams Belang, paid for about €100,000 worth of ads on Google in the last month. 

Nonprofits have also played a large role in pushing out political messages in Germany, with players like Campact, which pushed out over 470 ads in the last month on Google, most of them attacking the far-right AfD. The group also spent nearly €80,000 on similar messages on Meta, according to transparency data. Greenpeace and WWF Deutschland on Meta encouraged young Germans to shape climate policy through their votes in the EU election.

But even data from social media platforms on political messaging from NGOs and some media outlets doesn’t capture the whole picture around EU campaigning online. 

“​​There’s a gray zone that is not captured in these political ads data,” said van der Staak. 

He said there was “large suspicion that not everything is being reported correctly by the parties or by those that support them.” 

European Commission President von der Leyen failed to disclose that she was behind a Google ad campaign worth €70,000, with messages spreading online for days and recorded in an ad library under the name of a consultancy “MCC Adquality.” (Her party, the EPP, placed the ads back under her own name after POLITICO reported on it.)

Meanwhile, Google’s library recorded several ads worth nearly €30,000 for Romania’s Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR), a party connected to the right-wing European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) under the name of a company “DGI MULTIMEDIA DESIGN SRL.”

Several nonprofits have criticized Google’s ad library for making it difficult to scrutinize ads on political and social issues influencing elections. Meta is also under investigation by the European Commission for potentially failing to police its ads on its network, letting through covert messages — including foreign interference. The firm could face a multibillion-euro fine under the bloc’s content-moderation law, the Digital Services Act

Other platforms like TikTok don’t allow political advertising, but political content is still widespread there — with politicians flocking to the youth’s favorite app to garner their support.

 

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