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Belgium’s far-right spends big on Meta ahead of EU elections, expert finds

Far-right leader and chairman of the Vlaams Belang Tom Van Grieken
Far-right leader and chairman of the Vlaams Belang Tom Van Grieken Copyright Virginia Mayo/AP Photo
Copyright Virginia Mayo/AP Photo
By Anna Desmarais
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Vlaams Belang on the far right and Belgium’s Workers Party on the far left are the biggest political advertising spenders in that country’s social media campaign ahead of the European elections.

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The account of Vlaams Belang, Belgium’s Flemish nationalist party, posted an advertisement on April 26 with a video of young people fighting at a Geel bus stop.

“Have you also had enough of the ‘enrichment’ of the multicultural society?” the caption reads in Dutch. “Only Vlaams Belang is talking about this…and will restore law and order!”

For between €600 to €800, Vlaams Belang got up to 125,000 Facebook impressions and 60,000 on Instagram from this ad, largely from their intended audience of 18 to 34-year-olds in Belgium’s north, according to Meta Ad Library data.

For some, the social media campaign strategy of Vlaams Belang and party leader Tom Van Grieken is working.

A Euronews/Ipsos poll from March puts the party in the lead in Flanders with 23 per cent support there.

Van Grieken's agenda includes: breaking up the country and establishing a Flemish republic with strict immigration regulations.

The story in Wallonia and Brussels is quite different, with the Belgian Socialist Party (PS) and the Belgian Reformist Movement (MR) parties in the lead in those respective areas. 

This post is one example of how the Belgian far-right party has used extensive social media advertising, to win over online voters, who often skew younger.

Spending hundreds of thousands on social media

Xavier Degraux, a digital marketing specialist in Charleroi, Belgium, used the Meta Ad Library platform to analyse the social media advertising of major Belgian political parties in the first three months of the election campaign starting February 10.

He found that Vlaams Belang spent the most of all Belgian parties, with just under €300,000 on sponsored Facebook and Instagram ads.

That outpaces the second-place party, the leftist Workers Party of Belgium (PVDA/PTB), which spent €176,637.

That’s just on the official party accounts: the party spent another €77,219 on the personal account of Vlaams Belang leader Van Grieken.

For the Workers Party, they spent €56,849 for leader Raoul Hedebouw.

Overall, Degraux said he found that the extreme right is spending almost 10 times the amount per advertisement than the far left, which focuses more on microtargeting among certain key demographics.

A separate Euronews analysis found that in Europe overall, while far-right parties such as Vlaams Belang and Hungary's Fidesz lead the field in social media ads, other parties are also spending large sums on Google ads ahead of the poll. 

Degraux found in Belgium that the spending of these two parties on Facebook and Instagram ads accounts for roughly 47 per cent of all the social media political advertising done in the country in the three months before the election.

Only political parties in Denmark and Sweden pay more per user on Facebook than those in Belgium, at €6.55 and €5.79, according to another analysis by Degraux.

Meta’s advertising standards say they’ve restricted advertisements in EU countries that discourage people from voting in elections, call into question the legitimacy of an upcoming election, and prematurely claim an election victory.

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The policy also includes advertisements about any current or future elections. It applies equally to elections where the results have not yet been finalised and officials have yet to be sworn into office.

Euronews Next reached out to Vlaams Belang and the Workers Party of Belgium but did not receive a reply by publication.

Degraux said he didn’t notice any high advertising spending on TikTok by far-right parties in Belgium.

‘They are storytelling all the time’

In March, Belgium’s constitutional court ruled that 16 and 17-year-old teenagers have to vote in the upcoming European Elections or face a fine.

What that means is parties like Vlaams Belang are taking to the digital campaign trail to win over the younger generation, and it is leading to a “separation” in the political landscape, according to Degraux.

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The extreme right “really bet” on social media to make a difference in their campaigns, Degraux continued, unlike moderate parties that are working with both traditional and new technologies to get to their voters.

“They show themselves, they face the camera, they [are storytelling in] their day-to-day life … it’s normal for young people to be exposed to that content, so for [that audience] it could be a trick.”
Xavier Degraux, Belgian digital marketing specialist

“They are humanising themselves a lot and are storytelling all the time,” Degraux said.

“They show themselves, they face the camera, they [are storytelling in] their day-to-day life…it’s normal for young people to be exposed to that content, so for [that audience] it could be a trick.”

Their campaigns resemble that of former US President Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for that country’s 2024 elections, Degraux continued.

Vlaams Belang experiments with short, campaign catchphrases that that accelerate the content going viral.

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Despite both parties using similar storytelling techniques, Degraux said the far left invests much more in individual candidates than the far right, which is concentrated on elevating the platform of their president.

An informal agreement not to air far-right voices

Belgium’s far-right parties are also relying on social media during their campaign to get around a so-called “cordon sanitaire,” a long-standing, informal agreement between French-language broadcasters where legacy media will not give a platform to members or parties with racist or discriminatory views.

The cordon sanitaire was first mentioned when Flemish voters noticed the support behind Vlaams Blok (the precursor for Vlaams Belang) in the 1988 community elections, according to the Research Centre for socio-political information (Crisp).

But the agreement wasn’t fully in force until 1991 when Vlaams Blok received 10.3 per cent of votes in Flanders and took 12 of the 212 seats in the country’s chamber of representatives in what they refer to as “black Sunday".

Politicians from the five major parties at the time signed another version of the agreement, where they consented to not creating political agreements with far-right parties.

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Pascal Delwit, a political science professor at the University of Brussels, told the French newspaper Nouvel Obs that the cordon sanitaire is still efficient because the far-right parties are excluded from live-streamed leadership debates in French during the campaign, which gives them less visibility.

That was seen in the 2019 election, Delwit continued.

Belgium’s populist People’s Party, although having a huge social media presence, had very little effect on their results on election day, where they did not break the five per cent vote threshold for any elected representatives in regional parliaments. The party was dissolved shortly after.

Degraux pointed out, however, that there is no cordon sanitaire for social media or on established search platforms like YouTube or Google.

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