Google Adsense is considered a profitable advertising platform for many media outlets: ads appear on the site, and editors do not waste time finding companies and entering into contracts with them. In addition, contextual advertising for the target audience of each website gets into the pre-set columns, and the editors receive monthly payments from Google. However, in poor countries, where corruption and lack of transparency reach a high level, this advantage eventually becomes a problem, and the so-called profit turns into a loss. This is the case in Moldova: corrupt persons buy themselves space for advertising through Google and appear on those sites that fight against corruption. The state does not have the ability to verify these contracts, and Google does not have a liaison office in Moldova. In such conditions, portals that fight corruption have their image damaged and suffer financially.
Corrupt politicians, some of whom have been convicted of money laundering and prosecuted, by using Google ads further damaged the state of the poorest country in Europe, Moldova. They pay corrupt money for ads, appearing on thousands of pages, especially those where political topics are discussed because Google Adsense ads are distributed based on the context.
If you allow banners on the site, the politicians appear there
During the recent election campaign (November 2020) in Moldova, the presidential candidates resorted to a new strategy: most of them moved their banners and slogans to the online space through Google Adsense.
At the same time, an ethical issue was discussed in society – should the media make money from politicians who are accused of laundering public money?
The politicians have appeared on news sites, avoiding direct contact with the editors. Roman Bălțeanu, a marketing specialist, argues that when politicians turn to Google, they can choose not only the region and city, but also the websites on which their ads will appear.
“If the site allows you to display ads, then you can make a list of sites where you want to be placed, and you are displayed there. Google is cheaper than local advertisers to place ads. That is why many people choose Google,” explains Roman Bălțeanu, Advertising Director at Adcenter.
In addition to the fact that it is easier for them to display on some sites through Google, politicians also have an advantage if they use such services: in Moldova, Google does not provide transparency of political advertising, and third parties cannot check how much a particular politician has spent on their promotion through this platform.
“Google probably provides this for big countries, and it all depends a lot on the number of users and people in the country, and the amount of advertising and budgets there is much higher, and it is in Google’s interest to make certain verification tools or transparency tools for these states,” says Roman Bălțianu.
One of the candidates for the presidency of Moldova, the Shor Party deputy Violetta Ivanova, was sponsored by her colleague, leader of the party, and the fugitive Ilan Shor, who was convicted in the court of the first instance for fraud and money laundering in the notorious case of billion-dollar bank fraud. At the same time, Violetta Ivanova reported only 25 thousand lei for online advertising (about 1200 euros) and another 90 thousand lei (4.3 thousand euros), which she received in the form of donations for her promotion in the electronic media. But there is no direct way to check whether this is true. Google has no office in Moldova.
In the recent presidential campaign, Igor Dodon, himself the country’s president at that time, was modest in his reports. He indicated the costs of only 174 thousand lei (8.3 thousand euros) for online advertising, although his banners were on almost all popular websites in Moldova. Candidates have reported very modest amounts in their ad spend reports from tech giants, and the accuracy of the reported information is even more difficult to monitor because giants like Facebook and Google do not provide a complete and transparent picture of political ad spending.
Not all candidates reported actual costs
Experts from the Promo-LEX Association, which monitored the 2020 presidential elections, found that some candidates did not report all actual expenses incurred during the election campaign.
“With regard to electronic means, we noted cases when they reported more expenses than we estimated, but there were also cases when information in funding reports was less than Promo-Lex’s assessment. Igor Dodon did not report all expenses for electronic means, as in the case of Violetta Ivanova,” says Mariana Focșa, electoral analyst at Promo-LEX.
Amid doubts that some candidates do not reflect the actual costs associated with online advertising, the secretary of the Central Election Commission Maxim Lebedinschi told us that the institution checks the expenses on which candidates report only if there are notifications or complaints filed by other candidates. At the same time, there are not many mechanisms by which one could check the actual costs of online advertising.
“Online advertising is a special segment. The biggest problem, from our point of view, is that the the comanies that manage these resources do not fall under the Moldovan jurisdiction. That is, formally, legally, they do not have a representative office in Moldova, to which the legal requirements of our state can be imposed. We make any request for a document directly, but they can easily evade this action,” says Maxim Lebedinschi.
As online advertising becomes more popular during the election campaign, Maxim Lebedinschi argues that the Central Election Commission representatives will identify, along the way, legal mechanisms for cooperation with technology giants: “In the context of the presidential election, we contacted Facebook with a request for cooperation on a number of aspects, including promoting electoral activities in terms of accessibility, educating citizens or other aspects, as well as providing the Central Election Commission with an opportunity to gain access to the reliability of data. In this regard, Facebook replied to us that each request will be considered individually, i.e. every time we ask, they will analyze the aspect of the possibility of delivery or lack of delivery of information, ”Lebedinschi said, noting that there was no communication with Google Adsense yet.
Independent press incurs losses
While Google and politicians have benefited from the collaboration, many of the news sites on which candidates have appeared have suffered losses. Especially the investigative media that write about corruption and refuse to advertise corrupt politicians.
Ziarul de Gardă has been publishing investigations for 17 years, actively monitoring corruption, and therefore does not offer or post-political advertisements, especially from organizations that have integrity issues. During the recent election campaign, just like in previous ones, on www.zdg.md one could often see banners praising some politicians with integrity problems.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, the Ziarul de Gardă website was literally flooded with political ads for candidates with integrity issues because they came directly from Google. In theory, unwanted ads can be blocked by ticking certain categories on the Google Adsense platform. But lately, firms that pay to advertise on Google have found new ways to infiltrate ad-tolerant sites, even though sites block campaign or political advertising options.
“When we blocked banners at a specific address, banners leading to another address appeared in the system (for example, some banners led to the official page of the Shor party, others redirected to the official website of the candidate from this party, the third category – to the official page of the candidate on Facebook, and some redirected to unidentified Facebook pages like this. Politicians used several publishers, so when we blocked one completely, banners appeared that were loaded by another publisher. Different politicians joined the online campaign at different times, and therefore, we could only intervene after we noticed, or as we were informed, that there was a political advertisement on the site, and sometimes it took some time,” said web developer Alexandru Lachi.
The editors of ZDG were forced to appoint a separate person for daily monitoring and manually block the corresponding advertisement.
At some point, it was no longer possible to control, and we decided to abandon Google Adsense advertising altogether. As a result, in October, the editorial office lost about 500 euros, which it would have received for non-political advertising from Google. Added to this is the expense for the employee who blocked the ads on a daily basis, as well as the person who had to respond to the outrage from the reader community that criticized the editorial office for placing laudatory banners of corrupt politicians. All expenses and financial losses together exceeded 1,000 euros per month. This may be a tiny amount for Google or a political party, but it is a sizable monthly amount for an investigative newsroom that does not generate profits.
Other media outlets are in the same situation.
“By 2019, Google Ads were installed and we manage them internally. Therefore, when banners with different candidates appeared during the pre-election period, we blocked them. This was done manually because we logged in every day, checked which banners and visual ads were coming to our site, and blocked them. Then we decided to serve all these advertising media through a technological platform called an advertising mixer, and from that moment on we simply indicated the rule that election advertising should be blocked, ”says Irina Gelbur, director of the independent news project Interact Media.
Other media outlets decided to permanently stop advertising through Google in order to avoid the appearance of messages that are incompatible with editorial policy.
“We realized that there was a danger that different advertising messages would be transmitted through Google’s ads in favor of some of the political candidates in the elections whom we mentioned in the materials, and then we abandoned Google ads. Now we do not have advertising, although we need it, we understand that there is a risk that at some point we will not be able to control the advertising messages distributed through these networks,” says Cornelia Cozonac, chairman of the Center for Investigative Journalism.
“Technological giants must be involved in solving this problem. “
Petru Macovei, director of the Independent Press Association, argues that media outlets around the world should start a dialogue with large companies like Google, which receive money from politicians, and thus ensure greater accountability and transparency of advertising.
“A lot of politicians have realized that they can infiltrate platforms that do not sympathize with these politicians because these politicians are corrupt and dishonest. They found a way and a trick to still penetrate these media platforms. And this is how another challenge arose for journalists and media outlets, which must be careful that the platforms in which they have invested for years, and which enjoy a good reputation and trust of citizens, are not used by politicians for election purposes. Tech giants must be involved in solving this problem”, the Independent Press Association director says.
Readers Against Political Advertising
While the decision on whether or not to accept political advertising is up to each editorial office, press consumers are opposed to it. The editorial board of Ziarul de Gardă conducted a survey among its readers, in which a total of 421 people took part. Of these, 119 were in favor of placing electoral advertisements on news sites, and 302, which is equivalent to 72% of survey participants, said that the media should not place political advertisements.
Most said the media could lose credibility if they accept advertisements from politicians:
“Once you agree to advertise those you criticize, you lose credibility”;
“The media should refuse advertising so that politicians with a lot of money (thieves) cannot mislead people”;
“They should refuse because this is dirty money for dirty purposes”;
“It damages the institution’s image if the candidate’s principles do not match those of the media institution.”
Viorica Zaharia, Chairperson of the Press Council, believes that since it is about dealing with a foreign company, it will take some time to find a way out.
“Now editorial offices that are fighting for compliance with ethical standards must start a dialogue with international giants to make this issue more transparent, but small media in a small country will have to make more efforts to be heard,” says Viorica Zaharia.
Now communication with the giant is becoming almost impossible for editorial offices in Moldova or in other small countries.
The official Google page, which is headquartered in the United States, shows that it has no office in Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, or other post-Soviet countries other than Russia. ZdG reporters found the Romanian Google office and made inquiries several times. For several weeks, however, the only response from them was confirmation that they had received the message.
The Council of Europe emphasizes that the popularity of online political advancement reveals new vulnerabilities, making it difficult to maintain election integrity, ensure a free press and protect against disinformation. As a consequence, during 2021, the European Commission should come up with a legislative proposal on the transparency of sponsored political content, including online content. At the same time, the Commission advocates that citizens, civil society and responsible authorities can clearly see the source and purpose of the political advertising they are exposed to in the online environment. In poor and corrupt countries such as Moldova, which is not part of the EU, but also lacks the necessary resources to investigate and convict corrupt politicians, Google remains an open door for money launderers to get on the web pages that promote transparency and incorruptibility.
Infographic # 1 – Online Promotion Costs from Presidential Candidate Reports:
Maia Sandu – 1 180 677 lei
Igor Dodon – 174 552 lei
Octavian Cicu – 0 leiDorin Chirtoaca – 0 lei
Violeta Ivanova – 115,080 lei
Tudor Deliu – 52 845 lei
Andrei Năstase – 630 143 lei
Renato Usatîi – 917 433 lei
Infographic # 2 – ZdG Reader Poll: Should the Media Accept Political Advertising?
For – 119 (28%)
Against – 302 (72%)