The loud and ugly means of election campaigning in India have hardly taken time to adapt to digital means. The six major political parties alone spent at least ₹31 crores on Facebook and Google ads ahead of recent Assembly elections in five states, according to Mint calculations. But the transparency of this data does not make this case any less murky, often prompting calls for the regulation of online political ads.
True to perception, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been the biggest consumer of digital ads this polling season. In Uttar Pradesh, he spent ₹5.2 crores on Meta ads between December 2021 and March 2022, almost seven times the runner-up, Samajwadi Party (SP). Although Congress made a dismal number in the final tally, it was not far behind the BJP even in Uttar Pradesh, where its chances were bleak from the start.
The analysis takes into account advertisers who have spent more than a limit amount— ₹50,000 for Google and ₹1,00,000 for Meta – and which could be officially linked to parties, their leaders or hired agencies. Breakdown by state for Google Ads was not available.
Among parties without pan-India broadcasting, SP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) seemed weaker in the digital advertising game, but Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) were counterexamples . AAP has spent lavishly in states where it has seen itself in the fray. The AITC, which mainly contested in Goa, was far ahead of the SP and SAD, which contested larger states.
After outcry over misleading political advertising during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, tech giants were forced to step up transparency efforts. However, subtly managed “substitute” pages and groups still abound, often posing as neutral but favoring a particular party, while evading Facebook’s algorithms. All parties benefit from this publicity, some more than others. About 13% of pro-BJP advertising spending on Facebook during the analysis period could be attributed to unofficial means that could not be linked to the party, its leaders or hired agencies. these accounts was about 9% for Congress and the AAP.
This calls into question the power of current disclosure and control standards. Election media policy does not allow surrogate advertising, and it also applies to social media, said SY Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner. Just because it’s difficult to enforce for online ads doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be implemented, he said.
The costs incurred for online advertisements vary by election and party, but the data shows an upward trend. In 2020, the BJP allocated at least 4.6% of its declared election expenditure in Delhi to Google ads alone. (This cannot be calculated for recent polls as data on total election spending is not yet available.) The 2021 Tamil Nadu polls were the most expensive since at least mid-2019 in terms of ad spend Google.
This analysis is quite conservative due to dollar limits and may exclude ads that are difficult to link to a political party due to misleading online tools.
“The layered and convoluted means used to campaign on social media makes it difficult to estimate the total online ad spend of any particular party,” said Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of the Association for Democratic Reforms. Social media companies may not have much incentive to crack down on these ads because they generate handsome revenue.
Several countries are now realizing that social media has rendered old regulations on political propaganda obsolete. In 2019, New Zealand changed its election laws to “deter misleading anonymous online advertising”. The European Commission is proposing legislation to ensure transparency of the source and purpose of advertising, as well as to tackle misinformation and interference.
Forget online advertising, only 40 countries impose limits on general media advertising during polls, according to the IDEA political finance database. Only 12 have set some form of limits on online political ads. India places no limits on either. Political parties also do not impose limits on overall campaign spending.
The dangers of fake news and micro-targeting of misinformation in the digital age call for tougher laws on political advertisements in India. However, the political class may not be motivated for such reforms, and even the will and capacity of electoral authorities appear to have been compromised in recent years, Chhokar said.
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