Home / Politics / News /  Inside the digital ad spends in the recent elections, in charts

The loud and ugly ways of electoral campaigning in India have hardly taken time to adapt to digital means. The top six political parties alone spent at least 31 crore on Facebook and Google ads in the run-up to the recent Assembly elections in five states, Mint calculations show. But transparency of such data does not make this affair any less murky, often prompting calls for regulation of online political ads.

True to perception, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the largest digital ads spender in this poll season. In Uttar Pradesh, it spent 5.2 crore on Meta ads between December 2021 and March 2022, nearly seven times the runner-up, Samajwadi Party (SP). Although the Congress cut a sorry figure in the final tally, it was not far behind the BJP, even in Uttar Pradesh, where its chances were bleak from the word go.

The analysis considers advertisers who spent more than a cut-off amount— 50,000 for Google and 1,00,000 for Meta—and who could be officially linked with the parties, their leaders or hired agencies. State-wise break-up for Google ads was not available.

Among parties lacking a pan-India spread, the SP and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) appeared weaker in the digital ad game, but the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) were counter examples. AAP spent lavishly in the states where it saw itself in the fray. AITC, which mainly contested in Goa, was far ahead of SP and SAD, which contested bigger states.

Surrogate ads

After the uproar about deceptive political advertising during the 2016 US presidential election campaign, tech giants were forced to amp up transparency efforts. However, subtly-run “surrogate" pages and groups still abound, often masquerading as neutral but favouring a particular party, yet escaping Facebook’s algorithms. All parties benefit from such advertising, some more than others. Around 13% of the pro-BJP ad spends on Facebook in the analysis period could be attributed to unofficial means that could not be linked to the party, its leaders or hired agencies. The contribution of such accounts was around 9% for the Congress and AAP.

This calls into question the potency of current standards of disclosures and scrutiny. Electoral media policy does not allow surrogate publicity, and it applies to social media as well, said S.Y. Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner. Just because it is difficult to enforce for online ads does not mean it should not be implemented, he said.

Digital share

Costs incurred on online ads vary with election and party, but the data points towards a rising trend. In 2020, the BJP allocated at least 4.6% of its reported election spending in Delhi on Google ads alone. (This cannot be calculated for the recent polls as data on total election spending is not yet out.) The 2021 Tamil Nadu polls were the most expensive since at least mid-2019 in terms of Google ads spending.

This analysis is fairly conservative due to the cut-off amounts and since it could exclude ads that are hard to link to a political party due to deceptive online tools.

“The layered and convoluted means that are used for campaigning on social media makes it hard to estimate the total online ad spend by a particular party," said Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder of Association for Democratic Reforms. Social media firms may not have much incentive to crack down on such ads as they generate handsome revenues.

Global scenario

Several countries now realize that social media has made the old rulebooks on political propaganda obsolete. In 2019, New Zealand amended its electoral laws to “deter misleading anonymous online advertisements". The European Commission is bringing in legislation to ensure transparency in the source and purpose of advertising, along with to combat disinformation and interference.

Forget online advertising, just 40 countries have any limits at all on media advertising in general during polls, according to the IDEA Political Finance Database. Only 12 set some form of limits on online political ads. India places limits on neither. Nor do political parties have any limits on overall election spending.

The dangers of fake news and micro-targeting of disinformation in the digital era call for tighter laws on political ads in India. However, the political class may not have incentives for such reforms, and even the willingness and ability of electoral authorities seemed to be compromised in the last few years, Chhokar said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tauseef Shahidi

Tauseef Shahidi has been with Mint since September 2020. He writes both data-based stories and longform features across beats. As he could not make up his mind to pursue one discipline, he became a journalist to dabble in everything.
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