Excessive Facebook ads a poll offense: Comelec

By David Dizon, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Feb 20 2013 02:52 PM | Updated as of Feb 21 2013 09:06 AM

MANILA - Memo to electoral candidates: putting too many ads on Facebook or other websites can be an election offense, according to the Commission on Elections (Comelec).

Speaking at a breakfast forum of the Internet and Mobile Marketing Association of the Philippines (IMMAP), Comelec spokesman James Jimenez said electoral candidates can only post ads on any particular website 3 days a week. Any violation of this rule is considered an election offense.

“Online advertisement whether procured by purchase or given free of charge shall not be published more than 3x a week per website during the campaign period,” he said.

He also noted that the “exhibition or display of the online advertisement for any length of time, regardless of frequency, within a 24-hour period shall be construed as one instance of publication.”

“This means a politician can put 10,000 different permutations of the same ad on a single website within 24 hours and it will still be counted as one ad,” he added.

And if the candidate exceeds the limit?

“Kapag sumobra, then it’s a violation of RA 9006 or the Fair Elections Act, which triggers an election offense, which triggers possible imprisonment and disqualification from holding public office for the candidate,” Jimenez said.

The Comelec spokesman defined political advertising as “matters not falling within the scope of personal opinion that appear on any Internet website including but not limited to social networks, blogging sites, and microblogging sites in return for consideration or otherwise capable of pecuniary estimation.”

Under Comelec rules, all political ads should show jurisdictional notices on who paid for the ad. If the online ad was published for free, Jimenez said this is considered a donation and should be covered by a certificate of acceptance from the candidate.

The spokesman said it is not the poll body’s problem if the space for online ads is too limited to include all the jurisdictional notices. He said the online notices ensure accountability, which are similar to the notices found on TV ads.

“Without the notices, we don’t know who is paying for the ads,” he said.

He also urged website owners to identify who paid for the online ads and not just the digital agency that placed it on the website.

Ad networks, seeded posts

In the forum, Jimenez also said website owners have minimal liability if a candidate’s ad suddenly appears on their site through an ad network such as Google without their knowledge.

"Liability of the site owner will be very minimal simply because the candidate did not contract with him and there is no relationship between him and the politician. He is not privy to the contract between the politico and the ad network so that shields him from liability in that regard," he said.

He also pointed out that Comelec can get information on the actual rates for these ad networks and double-check if the candidates are overspending.

Jimenez said choosing to post an ad through an ad network is a matter of choice, noting that candidates can post their ads anywhere.

He noted candidates can even post all sorts of ads on their Facebook and Twitter pages since these are considered the candidates’ online “headquarters.”

The Comelec spokesman said candidates are free to put up blogs and Twitter accounts where they can personally reach out to voters.

He said personal opinions including preferences for candidates contained in blogs “shall not be considered acts of election campaigning or partisan political activity unless expressed by government officials in the Executive Department, the Legislative Department, the Judiciary, the Constitutional Commissions, and members of the Civil Service.”

“We will not be monitoring Twitter or Facebook. Candidates can have accounts and they can put up videos on YouTube. If it goes viral, good for him. We will not lose sleep over it. Our only concern is if it costs a significant amount of money. If they get a celebrity to star on a video, that may cause complications,” he said.

He added: “There are no rules for digital campaigns but we do have rules on campaign spending and that includes online.”

He also addressed the issue of “seeded posts” or messages that seem to promote a particular candidate. He said one difficulty with monitoring seeded posts is that anyone can freely choose to back any candidate and say so in an online forum.

“If there is a pattern to promote that candidate, we might look at it in a different light. If a blog sprouts up and promotes someone, then that is a suspicious blog,” he said.

Jimenez admitted that some candidates might be able to circumvent the rules on campaign spending if they shift their focus on purely online advertising. This is beside the fact that the Comelec does not monitor candidates’ expenses before the official campaign period because of the Supreme Court ruling on premature campaigning.

He said one proposal is for cooperative engagement with digital agencies to find out how much the candidates are spending “and not to take away their business.”