On October 30, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted that his company would no longer accept political advertisements. Political reach was something that needed to be earned and not bought, he said. He also acknowledged that Twitter was only “a small part of a much larger political advertising ecosystem.”
This ‘much-larger ecosystem’ is dominated by two players — Facebook and Google. In India, since February, when the data became available, advertisers on social issues, elections or politics had spent ₹39.1 crore on Facebook, and political advertisements on Google amounted to ₹29.3 crore. Facebook gets much more advertiser interest because of the level of targeting available, as well as the possibility of engagement through comments, ‘likes’, and shares.
As more and more advertisers, including politicians and political parties, embrace this advertisement platform, keeping a tally on election spending becomes an issue. Ahead of the 2019 general elections, the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the web platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter agreed on a ‘ voluntary code of ethics ’ aimed at ushering in transparency on the political advertisements and the money spent on these platforms. The platforms and ECI reactivated the voluntary code for the recent Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections and for all elections henceforth .
As per this voluntary code, the platforms would enable users to clearly identify political ads and the entities that had paid for them. From February, both Google and Facebook had also publicised tools with which the amounts spent by various entities on political and social issues ads could be tracked.
Table 1 shows some of the top spenders who targeted their politcal ads at Facebook users in Maharashtra from August 1 to October 29
Three of the entities mentioned in the table — Shiv Sena, BJP Maharashtra, and Indian National Congress Maharashtra — have verified pages, and the communication agencies working for them or the party behind the pages are listed as the advertisers. The identities of the other three entities have not been easy to establish.
For the top spender, the page ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’ that loosely translates to ‘can see the difference, Shivaji-style rule is back’, the contact phone number given is inactive. The address mentioned is just a street in Nagpur, and the website does not exist. Similarly, while ‘My First Vote For Modi’ has a functioning website, the phone number is inactive. The address given is the same as the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi. Mails sent to the email ids of the advertisers for these two pages as well as that for the ‘Aghadi Bighadi’ (‘front in trouble’) page all got no replies. Interestingly, both ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’ and ‘Aghadi Bighadi’ have been in existence only for a few months — the former since July 2 and the latter since May 22. Both pages have gone inactive after the election results were announced.
The amounts spent by these entities might seem small when compared to the election advertisement budgets of most parties. However, Table 2 gives an idea of what was purchased:
Interaction rate is the percentage of people that saw the advertisement who chose to click, like, share, or comment on it. To give a perspective of the level of interaction that these pages were able to achieve, the graph below is a comparison of the interaction rates of ‘Aghadi Bighadi’ and BJP Maharashtra’s official page.
How were these pages able to rack up such high engagement on their content?
‘Aghadi Bighadi’ specialises in what is essentially ‘attack ads’, with the NCP, MNS and Congress leadership bearing the brunt. Caricatures, modified video clips, morphed images, memes and pointed language were deployed in the 928 ads that were run by the page. One ad for instance features a morphed image of Sharad Pawar carrying a knife with ‘Backstabber’ written in Marathi over it.
‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’ is focused on promoting Devendra Fadnavis and Narendra Modi. While ‘Aghadi Bighadi’ seemed to have a local focus in its targeting, ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’’s targets included Jawaharlal Nehru and Kanhaiya Kumar.
Pictures 1 and 2 are examples of posts promoted by ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’.
Picture 1 (left) shows text that reads “To keep Maharashtra safe we will have to do a surgical strike” along with the image of a Muslim youth who vandalised the Amar Jawan memorial near CST in 2012. Picture 2 (right) places a line saying “Now no obstruction of any kind will be tolerated. All disputes will end at 5 pm this evening” and attributes it to Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, along with his picture. The complete image seems to suggest the inevitability of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
It is unclear whether these political advertisements had been pre-certified by the Media Certification and Monitoring Committees of the Election Commission as agreed to under the ‘voluntary code of ethics’. So is the question of who the advertisers were in these cases.