YouTube and Facebook let India down during the Lok Sabha election

The election underscored the platforms’ failure to enforce their own policies.
The election underscored the platforms’ failure to enforce their own policies.


  • Despite pre-poll promises of oversight, social media platforms fell short on curbing disinformation and worse. But then, India’s new government has an opportunity to set a global precedent on good digital governance.

The 2024 Indian general election highlighted the failures of major social media platforms, Google’s YouTube and Meta’s Facebook. Despite election preparedness promises, both fell visibly short on curbing disinformation and hate speech, while apparently profiting from opaque political advertising practices.

Before the election, much of the focus was on the creation of content, especially the blows that artificial intelligence and deepfakes could deal to democracy. But the dissemination of content—political ads, disinformation and AI-generated material—was a relatively overshadowed issue. Fake images or videos lack impact without wide reach, which is ultimately controlled by the platforms’ algorithms for ads and posts.

The election underscored the platforms’ failure to enforce their own policies. There continues to be opacity around how algorithms moderate content, and the data used for such algorithmic decision-making. This overarching lack of accountability is a warning sign for other countries, and an issue for India’s new government to prioritize.

Also read: Inside the digital ads blueprint of BJP and Congress

Experts labelled this year’s election as the “YouTube election." Both YouTube and Facebook became prime venues for political content, used extensively by parties, candidates, content creators and the public. WhatsApp, which was pivotal in the 2019 election, was also used for campaigning this year. 

But YouTube’s trump card was its virality potential with over 462 million users, and its ability to hyper-target audiences based on demographic and behavioural profiles. The platform became an alternative to traditional TV news, with opportunities for independent news media output and diverse content to thrive.

As for the influence of social media on elections, a 2021 Oxford Economics report found that 87% of Indian YouTube users turn to the platform during national news events. A news daily reported a two-fold increase in YouTube subscribers of digital news channels and political leaders as the election approached. 

According to a Hindustan Times report, the official page of the BJP spent at least 19.38 crore on Facebook and Instagram, and the Congress spent at least 10.88 crore. Similarly, the BJP spent at least 85.8 crore, and the Congress at least 45.4 crore on Google, including YouTube. 

The ad repositories of Google and Meta, which are not as transparent as they should be, and only tell part of the story, show that the two companies earned 9-10 digit figures from just two major political parties between February and May 2024.

Also read: Lok Sabha Elections 2024: Alternative media gives voice to the Opposition

In the lead-up to the election, Google pledged to support the democratic process by enforcing policies against false claims. However, an investigation by Global Witness and Access Now shows that YouTube approved 100% of submitted ads containing election disinformation—including content that could result in vote suppression or plausibly even incite violence—in English, Hindi and Telugu, violating its content policies. 

In contrast, YouTube had rejected such ads before the 2022 US midterm elections, pointing to a disparity in policy enforcement between regions and potentially reflecting internal choices on resource allocation to pre-poll supervision in the US over that in India.

Meta also seems to have failed its self-regulation test. Civil society organizations found that Meta approved 14 out of 22 ads with inflammatory content within 24 hours, despite public commitments to detect and remove violative AI-generated content. Most users seeking to upload such content are not researchers, and do not withdraw before publication. The potential harm from such content reaching millions is significant.

These examples are part of a broader pattern of large platforms placing profits over other concerns.

The writing is on the wall for India’s new government and other democracies: Self-regulation by social media companies is inadequate. Platforms wield immense influence over elections, and their policy enforcement (or lack thereof) has real-world consequences.

However, the regulatory efforts so far have mainly been aimed at shifting power from companies to the government. The need of the hour are policies that balance free expression, privacy and public accountability of algorithmic decisions. This is not a task for the government and tech companies to bilaterally address, as has often been done. 

The inclusion of technical experts, civil society and those impacted by these decisions can be a game-changer. Consultations on the upcoming Digital India Bill and data protection rules could help institute an inclusive-governance approach that fosters democratic engagement.

With newly elected representatives, a burgeoning tech sector and several imminent digital-regulation frameworks, India has an opportunity to lead with workable solutions for the repercussions of Big Tech dominance and modes of governance that involve those who are impacted the most: the end users of social media platforms.

Also read: Lok Sabha elections 2024: From WhatsApp to social media influencers; here’s how parties are wooing voters

India’s elevation of digital initiatives should be backed by leadership moves that focus on inclusive governance, compelling technology to be shaped in a way that empowers people. The country should send a clear message that platforms cannot have heightened accountability measures for the West and lax enforcement for the rest. 

A governance model which puts fundamental rights and collective deliberation up front would demonstrate a will to ensure that technology strengthens democracy.

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