The sad fate of Facebook Audiences: Algeria.

Team Members

Jacky Loos
Maria Noujaim
Sara Sousa Guimaraes
Sikharin Yotin


1. Introduction

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In 2024, over 64 elections will take place worldwide. In this research, we are interested in investigating what kind of advertisements Algerian audiences are exposed to on Facebook ahead of the country’s presidential elections at the end of the year, especially since Meta, Facebook’s mother company, has over 3 billion users worldwide, which inevitably means that these users are faced with all sorts of ads that are potentially political. Algeria had 32.09 million internet users, which is more than 70% of the entire Algerian population (45.60 million residents in 2023). In early 2023, 20.80 million Facebook users were recorded in Algeria, which is almost half of the country’s population (Kemp, 2023).

Algeria presents a compelling and significant case study for researching political advertisements on Facebook, primarily due to its complex political landscape. The country has experienced prolonged periods of political instability that paralysed the democracy of the country (Ottoway, 2021). Dominated by the military regime led by Abdelaziz Bouteflika who had been in power since 1999, before stepping down in 2019, by Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Despite Bouteflika's exit, the protest movement, known as Hirak persisted, with demonstrators advocating for a comprehensive transformation of the political system – notably – one involving the distancing from the political sphere of the country’s all-powerful military. (Abouzzohour, 2021). The call for reform has become heightened due to the economic fallout from COVID-19 and the fall in oil prices led to a rise in unemployment and a significant decrease in the buying power of Algerians (ibid.). The military leadership has attempted to contain the unrest through varying levels of repression as well as political tactics. This political contestation offers an interesting site, particularly regarding how it is mediated onto the digital landscape ahead of the predicted 2024 Algerian elections.

Therefore, our research is spearheaded by the initial question, what type of materials are small audiences in Algeria exposed to on Facebook prior to the 2024 presidential elections?

In order to provide transparency on the sponsored content run on Meta, the company provides a tool named Facebook Ad Library which provides a multitude of information regarding the page creating the ad but also information on the ad as well as details about the audiences it reaches. By using this tool, we found a trend of Chinese ads in Algeria that promoted China’s economy, ecology, news, and culture.

2. Research Questions

In this research, we started by looking at the kinds of ads that are shown to Algerian audiences and then finding a pattern between them. As we found a significant amount of Chinese ads, we seek to investigate the relation between China and Algeria and to better grasp the nature of these ads and the geo-political context they are situated in. As we will discuss further, we found that the content of these lines were in line with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With that process in mind, the research questions of this paper are:
  1. What type of materials are small audiences in Algeria exposed to on Facebook?

  2. How is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reaching small audiences in Algeria through Facebook ads?

3. Methodology and initial datasets

In order to gather the datasets we used Meta’s Ad Library - which will be elaborated on further in the following section. Specifically, the advertisements from the last 90 days (11 October 2023 to 6 January 2024) were scrapped from the ‘Ad Library Report’ based on the location of ‘Algeria’, explicitly using the ad category “Social Issues, Elections, or Politics”. Overall, a total of 1305 advertisements were retrieved. The data was downloaded as a CSV file and exported into a Google Sheets. The raw dataset was coded inductively based on the content from the facebook pages of the advertisements using a colour-coding scheme. As a result, 3 categories were delineated, (1) political, (2) non-political, and (3) anomalies. The latter category being defined as pages irrelevant to the context of Algeria, either politically or administered by individuals outside of the country. Through this categorization we acquired 74 advertisements which fell under the category of “political” content.

However, after categorising our list and organising the classified data we decided to concentrate on three advertisers on Facebook from three different categories. In the category of (1) Ecology we focused on China Southern Power Grid Company Limited (CSGI) (Figure 2), in the group of (2) Economy we chose Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) (Figure 3) and lastly for (3) Culture we decided on 中華人民共和國外交部駐香港特別行 政區特派員公署 (Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) (Figure 4). On each of the ads administered by the Ad Library, we were provided information on the status of the advertisements (active or inactive), the period it was active, on which Meta or third party platforms they were active, the categories they were grouped under, the estimated audience size, the amount spent (USD), the approximate number of people it reached and lastly if the ads ran with or without disclaimers.

According to Leerssen et al. (2021), the ‘Ad Library’ is approached as a phenomenon, particularly focusing on how Facebook advertisements have been leveraged by political parties as a strategic affordance for its digital campaign to accomplish their electoral goals (Bene et al., 2021), rather than as a research tool for data extraction within academia research. Tackling this methodological gap, the ad library was employed as the principal tool within the premises of our research paper, to precisely observe the phenomena of Facebook advertisements disseminated to the public pre-elections.

A discernible pattern was highlighted in the anomalies, whereby there was a prominent presence of Chinese advertisements targeted to the Algerian population. This trend was studied further, thus resshifting the research question of the paper to, How is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) reaching small audiences in Algeria through Facebook ads?

3.1 Limitations

Ideally, the transparency of the Facebook Ad Library should be assessed. Facebook’s Ad Library does not provide sufficient information for proper data analysis and interpretation (Bene et al., 2021). A pitfall which is reflected by the lack of, and missing transparency in the data of ‘ad delivery’ and ‘ad audience’, thus affecting the scope of our data analysis. According to Leerssen and colleagues (2021), Facebook’s Ad Library has been criticised extensively for its faulty design and implementation. Similarly, Edelson and colleagues (2020) discusses the weaknesses of the Ad Library, in which questions such as, how many (undetected) political ads on the platform are incorrectly missing in the archive, and whether disclosures are accurate, must be posed when employing it as a research tool. In particular, the accurate disclosure of their political ads may be evaded by advertisers, and the focus on political and issue ads are often restrictive due to its ambiguity and subjectivity, therefore causing the inconsistent, and elusive identification of the ads. Although these limitations are to be taken into account in the accuracy of our findings, we leave a more comprehensive study of the archive completeness, and disclosure accuracy for further research.

4. Findings

Around 10% of the advertisements obtained from our raw dataset were Chinese related. When analysing the data set on Chinese Ads on Algerian Facebook pages, it was apparent that there were three subcategories that these advertisements could be classified into. These categories are as follows: economy (12.3%), culture (46.2%), ecology/natural resources (12.3%), and news/media (29.2%). Within these sub-categories there was a lack of, and if not, no explicit content highlighting the political ties between China and Algeria. The content predominantly focused solely on China, and all of these categories were either state-owned or governmental Facebook pages, meaning that there was some form of censorship in the process of their postings.

Furthermore, to support our qualitative data, a quantitative analysis was carried out on one of the Facebook pages, and showcased advertisements from each of the subcategories in order to provide contextual information on the particular content mediated to the audiences. The following findings of the case studies are delineated below.

1. Ecology: China Southern Power Grid Company Limited (CSGI)

A significant amount of ads promoted towards Algerian audiences were focusing on China’s ecological developments. One of the companies that disseminated this type of content was the China Southern Power Grid Company Limited (CSGI), s state-owned company that distributes electrical power in China’s southern provinces. When looking at its Twitter account, it is also specified that the company carries out investments, construction, and management of global electric energy projects.

The company ran a total of 4 ads, all of them being in English and targeting overall a variety of regions, including Africa, Europe, Asia, and both North and South America. While two of these ads were removed by Meta since it “didn’t follow their advertising standards,” we still had access to the content of the other two ads. Both of them generally were promoting China’s ecological developments. The first one, which ran in April of 2023, promoted the company’s branch in the province of Hainan and its efforts towards more sustainable development in their power and energy transformation. The second one, which ran in March of 2023, advertised the Meizhou Energy Storage Power Station and its contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions when producing electricity. While the first ad had around between 1k to 2k impressions, the second one reached over 30k impressions.

Despite the ad running in a multitude of regions, it specifically ended up reaching Algerian and Indian audiences. When looking at the ad delivery details of the Hainan ad, the numbers reveal that the biggest portion of the audience seeing this ad is located in the province of West Bengal (7%), and the second biggest portion is indeed in the province of Algiers in Algeria (3%). The location of the audiences of the second ad was similar to the first one, since the biggest portions were divided between Algerian and Indian provinces. Here, however, the most considerable portion is in fact in Algiers (5%). Promoting the ecological progress of the state-owned company is in line with China's BRI project, which recently aimed at straying away from its emission-intensive model (Baxter, 2023).

2. Economy/Ecology : Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC)

Firstly, in the economic discoveries, a Chinese state-owned company, CNPC, was investigated. CNPC is a state-owned oil company, belonging to one of China’s top three national contributors. Their ads that were displayed on Facebook were all in English, and mainly targeted to the African region, with 150 ads being distributed in Algeria. Aside from the promotion (including milestones, and achievements) of the company’s oil and gas exploration within its home-based and overseas operations, there is a presence of a subcategory of ads that seek to promote the state of China, and its culture, irrespective of its oil business. These include raising awareness of Chinese festivals, language acquisition, Chinese Cuisine, traditional Chinese medicine, and sponsored investments by CNPC to develop healthcare facilities within Africa. Although CNPC has operations within Algeria and partnerships with the Algerian state-owned oil company, Sonatrach, the represented ads were not inclusive of these relations.The audiences of these ads are mainly saturated within Northern India (Uttar Pradesh) and Central Nepal (Bagmati Zone), in comparison to the Algiers Province. Impressions ranged within a scale from 5k to 150K.

3. Culture: (中華人民共和國外交部駐香港特別行政區特派員公署) Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

The most saturated content regarding Chinese ads on the Algerian Facebook page were cultural content and companies. For the cultural content, the advertisements from the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was analysed. The difference between this government sector or company and the others is that it is a government organisation, rather than a state-owned company. This means that as it is located in Hong Kong, there is in general more leeway and not as strict regulations as in China.

Throughout the investigation one payer and beneficiary stood out, BastillePost. BastillePost is a Hong Kong news and media company, however due to recent events, censorship has become inevitable to all news reports. Looking further into BastillePost, it was discovered it belongs to the Sing Tao News Corporation that is also based in Hong Kong. Moreover, an interesting discovery that was uncovered was that most of the committee from BastillePost is from China, and support the communist party. Therefore, it can be drawn that from the advertisements, they are trying to display a utopian version of China to make it more appealing, however this will be further discussed.

5. Discussion

The identification of Chinese advertisements brings on a broader discussion on the Chinese government’s “going global” strategy implementation through Facebook. An initiative driven by the outward expansion of business enterprises as a major strategic initiative for the future economic development of the country (Wang et al., 2016). Despite Facebook being blocked in China, Beijing emerges as a big user of the platform to spread its political views to hundreds of millions of people overseas via its advertisements. According to Tambe and Friedman (2022), Chinese state media’s Facebook advertising increased sharply in many countries at the start of 2020. As spokesperson from the human rights group Avaaz states, "these ads provide a vehicle for Beijing's propaganda [..], even if the amounts aren’t huge, it's a direct profit stream. That’s what's particularly troubling" (Purnell, 2021). Essentially, the company is being used as a conduit for state propaganda, a strategy that is highly prominent by the concentration of advertisements found, labelled as "state-controlled media" or are sponsored posts from Chinese organisations. On a magnified scale, these advertisements are exemplary of China’s soft power initiatives not only within Algeria but on a global scale. As President Xi Jinping states, “We will improve our capacity to tell our stories, one that presents a multidimensional view, whilst further enhancing China’s cultural soft power.” The diverse array of content within the advertisements, as evidenced by the categorised content spanning various domains, showcasing China's influence and capabilities across different facets, particularly encapsulates this ‘multidimensional view’ that China seeks to present. Furthermore, the multi-factedness of the advertisements coincide with Beijing’s leaders turning to more traditional tools of soft power through the promotion of Chinese language, educational exchanges, media expansion, and pop culture icons, in addition to their economic initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI (Albert, 2018). Hence, it can be asserted that the advertisements act as a vehicle for China’s soft power (ibid).

While debate abounds over whether these promotions of China’s traditions, values, language, and culture can win it more friends, it is evident that vast funds are backing programs to promote, and enhance the country’s image (ibid.). In particular, this “image” is one that arises as utopian driven, created by a facade of positively employed language and content that selectively highlights favourable aspects. Such a restricted narrative that portrays China in a certain light, not only lends towards the contending towards its global initiative but, inevitably reflects China’s authoritarian goals: This is not just about regulating the economy, but also about creating a new socialist utopia under the Communist Party’s benevolent guidance (Denyer, 2016). According to Rogier Creemers, a professor of law and governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands, “a huge part of Chinese political theater is to claim that there is an idealised future, a utopia to head towards” (ibid).

Furthermore, the advertisements that prominently feature content related to the ecology and economy of China, offer a reflection of the evolving Sino-African relationships that China is fostering. This strategic focus on ecological and economic aspects aligns with China's broader initiatives, particularly the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a global infrastructural and developmental project, also known as the One Belt One Road (OBOR).

The project was initially introduced in 2013 with the goal of connecting Africa, Asia and Europe through a range of maritime and land networks to ultimately connect countries and boost economic growth (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2024). Algeria is a key partner in the project whereby in 2023 their cooperation was strengthened by investing in additional sectors such as new energy, aerospace, and telecommunication services (Global Times, 2023). Since their initial agreement, significant infrastructure financed by the BRI was built in Algeria. A relationship, described by the Chinese Embassy in the Netherlands as one “brought together by the common cause of opposing imperialism and colonialism and seeking national independence and liberation.” These projects are undeniably reflected within the advertisements.

Lastly, the high number of audiences reached outside of Algeria, particularly the notable outreach to audiences located in India is taken as an anomaly. It can be speculated that this is a result of India's substantial presence on Facebook, considering it claims the highest number (314.6M) of Facebook users globally, therefore triumphing over the Algerian demography (World Demography Review 2024). However, more importantly, the high presence of these Chinese ads reaching beyond the intended Algerian audience, raises questions about Facebook's role in potentially facilitating Chinese propaganda. Facebook has attempted to make efforts to remove such content, citing in their 2023 annual report, the removal of 7,704 Facebook accounts, and 954 Pages, originating in China with suspected links to the Chinese government (Wei, 2023). These initiatives are further reflected within our dataset, by the high frequency of advertisements returned with the label “this content was removed because it didn't follow our Advertising Standards.” However, despite this, they still persist within the platform. As Dave and Paul (2020) highlight, Facebook sells more than $5 billion a year worth of ad space to Chinese businesses and government agencies looking to promote their messages abroad. A statistic that is well encapsulated within our findings.

6. Conclusions

In conclusion, our findings have unearthed the absence of advertisements related to Algerian politics in the pre-election period, with the focus predominantly centred on Chinese state sponsored advertisements. Thus, highlighting the current relationship between China and Algeria, and the broader Sino-African relations, but most importantly, China’s growing hegemony over the world. In particular, Facebook's role in abating the dissemination of content that may align with Chinese propaganda efforts, whether inadvertently or deliberately, can be susceptible to further scrutiny. The scope of its reach can be further investigated by looking further into the Chinese Facebook advertisements, and analysing what types of companies are behind the ads, and what other categories there might be. This could help discover who is truly behind the advertisements, and if there are any ties to political figures.

As China has been creating friendly relationships with African countries, it is important to analyse and see what type of saturated or unsaturated content the people receive from China, as they could be viewing propaganda content. This could help investigators to understand or predict whether these friendly ties are just maintaining good relationships, or whether there is a bigger motive behind it. Lastly, inquiry into the reach of these advertisements in different countries, can further contribute to a more comprehensive overview.

7. References

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Bene, M. & Kruschinski, S. (2021). Political Advertising on Facebook. In J. Haßler, M. Magin, U. Russmann & V. Fenoll, Campaigning on Facebook in the 2019 European Parliament Election (pp.283-299). Palgrave Macmillan Cham. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-73851-8_18 ebook

Council of the EU. (2023). “Transparency and Targeting of Political Advertising: EU Co-Legislators Strike Deal on New Regulation.” November 7, 2023. nd-targeting-of-political-advertising-eu-co-legislators-strike-deal-on-new-regulation/

Denyer, S. (2016, October 22). China’s plan to organize its society relies on ‘big data’ to rate everyone. The Washington Post. ole-society-around-big-data-a-rating-for-everyone/2016/10/20/1cd0dd9c-9516-11e6- ae9d-0030ac1899cd_story.html

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Leerssen, P., Dobber, T., Helberger, N., & de Vreese, C. (2023). News from the ad archive: how journalists use the Facebook Ad Library to hold online advertising accountable. Information, Communication & Society, 26(7), 1381–1400.

McBride, J., Berman, N., & Chatzky, A. (2023, February 2). China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative. Council on Foreign Relations.

Purnell, N. (2021, April 2). Facebook staff fret over China’s ads portraying happy Muslims in Xinjiang. The Wall Street Journal. muslims-in-xinjiang-11617366096

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Topic revision: r1 - 26 Feb 2024, GuillenTorres
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