India has a few chaotic weeks ahead of itself. Mired in a deluge of misinformation and uncertainty, about 900 million of its citizens will take to local polling booths for casting their votes. Votes that will decide which political group will govern the world’s largest democracy for the next five years.
And in an effort to leave no stone unturned, political parties are going all out in their quest to persuade every possible voter. Online promotions, as you’d guess, are yet again at the forefront and play a pivotal role in shaping public opinion. To avert misuse and keep the spurt of partisan content in check, tech giants are, therefore, forced to pull overtime.
In anticipation of the general elections, India’s most active social and advertising networks — Facebook, Google (+YouTube), and Twitter have announced a slew of new policies and tools for bringing more transparency as well as scrutiny to political promotions on their platforms.
But are those enough? We dive deep to find out and explore how some are trying to game them.
How does one become an electoral ad buyer on Facebook, Google, and Twitter?
To publish an advertisement that qualifies as political, all these services require advertisers to go through an extensive application process. It’s designed essentially to verify the advertiser’s identity, confirm that they’re operating from India, and paying through an India-based funding address.
To do that, the advertiser, which can be anyone from a political party to an individual, must submit one of the accepted government-issued photo documents including a passport, voter ID, driving license, and PAN card.
In addition, they are asked for an attestation from the Election Commission which says that the advertiser is legally authorized to run political ads. There’s also a step to validate one’s address. The account can either choose to have someone visit their home/office or receive a postal code which then they’ll have to enter online while applying. Based on who you are, you’ll have to upload a couple of additional proofs. For instance, political parties must send in their registration document.
Once someone is through the verification stage, publishing ads aren’t simply about clicking a button either. Every political promotion they wish to conduct online will first need to be registered with the Election Commission of India (ECI) which falls in line with the revised Model Code of Conduct.
The pre-certificate generated from there will then have to be submitted to the online platform. Plus, all the political ads will have a disclaimer for easily identifying who paid for it and which page or profile ran it.
While the application processes are largely identical across these platforms, the differences start sticking out when we discuss user-facing ad transparency tools. These apps let anyone browse a service’s ad library and look into a host of statistics such as who has distributed the most number of ads, how much a particular account has spent, where they have spent, how wide their reach is, and much more.
Checking a political party or candidate’s ad expenditures online
Facebook arguably has the most sophisticated ad transparency tool. It allows you to read the Ad Library Report which reveals the top spenders, search for specific keywords or pages, view precise expenditure details, and browse through all the political ads since February 2019. What’s more, you can inspect the breakdown of a particular ad, how many impressions it garnered and its gender as well as geographic analysis.
So, let’s say you’d like to inspect the Indian National Congress. On the landing page, you can type the name, select from the suggestions, and you’ll have all the information at your disposal in seconds.
Google’s offering, on the other hand, sorts its data by advertisers or candidates instead of letting you look up, for instance, a candidate’s YouTube channel. One feature exclusive on Google is that it has a section which displays every political advertisement hosted on its platforms. Facebook restricts that functionality to the advertisers list.
Apart from that, Google offers all the trappings you would expect such as the ability to browse an advertiser’s activities, charts depicting when did they shell out the most, and the works.
On Google’s ad transparency tool, if you’d like to view the Congress party’s statistics, you can either choose from the advertisers list or search from the option present above the table.
Twitter’s tool, by far, is the least capable of this bunch. Its biggest shortcoming is that you can only access up to a week’s worth of data, unlike Facebook and Google’s months of archival data. Despite being a social network, you also can’t search for keywords. In addition, there are no listings for the most active advertisers, nor will you find geographic breakdowns. You can only view the authorized accounts, their promoted tweets, impressions, and how much they have spent.
For looking into the Congress’s activities on Twitter, say, you can either scroll through the list of campaigning advertisers or search from the field present at the top right corner.
Both Congress and BJP have no promoted tweets on Twitter, though. There are only a handful of candidates who have merely spent a couple of hundred dollars.
Twitter’s policies also seem a bit frail compared to the rest. For instance, while browsing my feed, I came across a political advert with no disclosures and the account wasn’t present in the list of authorized advertisers.
Where are India’s political parties spending the most?
The silver lining is, however, that partisan content on Twitter is hardly on the same scale as Facebook or Google. And that is expected given Twitter only has less than 35 million users in the country. Facebook and Google’s expansive reach is a significantly more appealing medium for advertisers and that shows in the numbers.
Since February 2019, political advertisers invested Rs 8.6 crores on Google and a staggering Rs 12 crores on Facebook at the time of writing. The Bharatiya Janata Party led the charts on all these platforms. However, on Google, Telangana’s Telugu Desam Party remained ahead.
Political smoke and mirrors: there’s more to it than meets the eye
But these campaigns aren’t as straightforward as they seem. Parties at both sides rely on unscrupulous methods to push their propaganda. Its most sweeping example can be conspicuously found on the advertiser leaderboards.
The page at the third spot on Facebook’s Ad Library spent a whopping Rs 1.05 crores (as of 10 April). Titled “My First Vote for Modi”, it’s neither popular with 75k likes, nor officially affiliated to the BJP. On top of that, the page was created on 17 January.
The situation gets even more complicated when you drop by its Instagram profile. There, it lampoons over the opposition with memes featuring their leaders. One of the posts is an image of two female “content creators” (who don’t look 18) endorsing the BJP without any tags to their profiles whatsoever.
“My First Vote for Modi” is just one such unofficial page spending lakhs on advertisements. Whether they’re backed by the parties they support is not known for now. But considering the patterns, we won’t be surprised if they were.
It’s quite possible parties segregate their funds through these several mysterious channels so that officially they don’t seem as aggressive. Case in point: the actual BJP page stands at the seventh position Facebook with investments less than half that of “My First Vote for Modi”.
Furthermore, IT cells of these political groups are known to manage hundreds of fake accounts to disseminate and promote their campaigns. Facebook itself brought several of them to a halt a couple of days back. One of them was “The Indian Eye”, which had 2.6 million follows and was linked to Silver Touch, an Ahmedabad-based IT firm responsible for developing the NaMo and Rashtrapati Bhavan apps.
Polling for India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections is just a few days away now. While tech companies such as Facebook and Google have come up with solutions to quell inappropriate political behaviour, it’s clear they still have miles to go. Their platforms are constantly being abused to spread fake news and propaganda-infused content. What used to be the battle for truth has transformed into a contest where the one who succeeds at cleverly manipulating the most people wins.
The best we can do is spread awareness, point people in the right direction, and go out and vote.