Israel’s Digital Campaign Trail: Who Spent a Fortune Down South and Who Blew Their Money

The Labor Party gave up Haifa, while Meretz and Yesh Atid fought over Tel Aviv – and Likud placed its entire focus on Netanyahu. Here’s how the parties spent their cash on paid advertising on Facebook and Google in the Nov. 1 Knesset election

Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob
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Prime Minister Yair Lapid on election night. His Yesh Atid party spent the most on digital ads in this year's elections.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid on election night. His Yesh Atid party spent the most on digital ads in this year's elections.Credit: Hadas Parush
Omer Benjakob
Omer Benjakob

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is the party that sunk the largest amount of money in its digital campaign ahead of the November 1 Knesset election. That’s one of the conclusions from an analysis of publicly available information on digital campaign spending in Israel via Facebook and Google.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, which won a quarter of a million more votes than Yesh Atid, was second in its digital ad spending. The ranking is based on information disclosed by Google and by Facebook’s parent company, Meta.

STOIC, a company that provides information and consulting services to political parties, carried out the analysis, which included cross-referencing the ad spending and the actual results of the election. This revealed that major spending on digital advertising didn’t necessarily correlate with electoral success.

The question of how parties use targeted political ads has become a topic of hot political debate, particularly since the scandal involving the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which provided big-data analysis, audience segmenting and targeted political messaging services. It was found to have made unauthorized use of Facebook users’ personal information, including in the 2016 elections in the United States.

Use of personal user information from Facebook and Google permits advertisers to promote specific content to narrowly tailored audiences – including segmenting by gender, political views, geographic location, socioeconomic status and the content that users consume. And the two tech giants disclose this in the political advertising on their platforms.

Investment in political ads on Facebook and Google

In addition, Facebook and Google have developed tools ostensibly aimed at increasing transparency in other ways, permitting reporters, researchers, and the general public to see which political advertisers are promoting paid content, along with how much they are paying for it and how they target their audiences. Google had been limiting personally tailored political advertising in Israel but permitted it during the most recent Israeli election campaign.

Twitter and TikTok don’t disclose such information on political ads that they sell.

Available data show that Yesh Atid spent 1.7 million shekels ($4.94 million) on paid promotion of posts from Prime Minister Lapid’s Facebook page but only 144,000 shekels on promoting posts from the party’s own Facebook page. And Likud spent 1.3 million shekels promoting Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook page but only 24,000 shekels on the party’s page.

Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity Party spent 651,000 shekels on digital advertising. The Labor Party spent 617,000, and Meretz spent 557,000 shekels on digital promotion.

The return on investment by Labor and Meretz was particularly meager. Labor finished with only four Knesset seats and Meretz got no seats, after failing to reach the minimum threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote. Meretz actually spent four times as much as Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir’s outlay on his personal page. (Ben-Gvir’s party ran on a joint Religious Zionism ticket, which garnered 14 seats in the election).

Labor focused almost entirely on promoting party leader Merav Michaeli’s Facebook page (531,000 shekels), while Meretz spent more than half its digital advertising budget on the party own page and a smaller amount (244,000 shekels) promoting the personal page of party leader Zehava Galon.

Where did the money go?

The internal battle within the anti-Netanyahu camp was also apparent on a regional level. According to available data, during the last two weeks of the campaign, Yesh Atid, Meretz, and Labor targeted most of their digital resources at residents of Tel Aviv and the center of the country.

And data reflect that. When it comes to digital spending, Labor and Meretz gave up on long-time strongholds such as Haifa (12 percent of the budget) and kibbutzim outside the center of Israel (some 10 percent of the budget.) According to the analysis, Labor invested a minuscule amount in digital advertising in Haifa, which was historically a Labor Party stronghold, and in the end attracted only 6,600 votes (less than 5 percent) of the total Haifa vote, compared to 9,300 votes (around 7 percent of the vote) in the prior round of elections in 2021.

Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism ticket focused on outlying areas of the north and south, spending around half their digital budgets there – which they linked to their campaign theme of a lack of governance in those areas.

According to STOIC CEO Ido Stossel, who wrote his firm’s report, the way in which the center-left parties including Yesh Atid and Gantz’s National Unity party invested in digital advertising is an indication of a wider crisis and lack of cohesion in the political camp and of a failure to connect to the grassroots.

In the two weeks prior to the election, Stossel said, in the south, Religious Zionism and Likud took opposite approaches. “Likud increased its budget and Religious Zionism decreased it – even though ‘governance in the south’ was one of the headline [themes] of its campaign.”

“You can see how in the last 30 days of the campaign, Likud decreased its budget in the Jerusalem district and moved it to the south,” Stossel added, “and that may have happened due to the success of Religious Zionism’s ‘personal security’ [campaign theme] in the south. On the other hand, in the last 30 days, over half of Yesh Atid’s digital budget was invested between Hadera and Gadera,” a reference to the central region of the country around Tel Aviv. “Where there were attempts to reach new audiences, the efforts were unsuccessful and turnout remained low.”

For its part, the Central Elections Committee spent some 340,000 shekels on digital advertising to encourage turnout and to provide information regarding the integrity of the voting process. That followed attempts in Israel and abroad to cast aspersions on the election processes and claims that the results would be rigged. Likud even prepared a “stolen election” campaign in advance, ahead of its possible defeat.

Although not labelled as political, the Sela Meir Press, which published Netanyahu’s autobiography, spent 180,000 shekels advertising the book during the campaign – a sum equal to the Habayit Hayehudi party’s entire digital advertising budget. “The question is being raised as to whether it should have been reported as a campaign expense, because on the face of it, it’s an illegal campaign contribution by a corporation,” the report noted.

According to Prof. Anat Ben-David of the sociology, political science and communications department at the Open University, who studies the intersection between politics, data and social media, the information revealed by Facebook is very limited and doesn’t permit in-depth analysis of campaign patterns.

“On one hand, making the data accessible regarding how much parties spent, the distribution of expenditures and the audiences targeted are an important tool that permits us to demand that the parties take responsibility,” she said. “On the other hand, the data is too general and lacks real analytic value. For example, there are no details about which specific audience was segmented and targeted for a specific ad, and there are no insights regarding the segmentation of expenditures by regions in Israel, as the demographics are very different within each region. For example, ads run in ‘the northern district’ might reach populations from various sectors and socioeconomic strata.”

As long as Facebook fails to reveal the categories that the parties used in directing a specific ad to a specific audience – the essence of a segmented digital advertising as opposed to a billboard, which everyone sees – there is no way to draw significant insights into political advertising in the digital age, Ben-David said.

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