Why Facebook Should Ban Political Ads in India

While Facebook, Google and other platforms have been trying to make political advertisement on the sites more transparent, almost all their efforts have been ineffective.

Recently, Facebook was mired in controversy for refusing to fact-check political advertisements.

Twitter, on the other hand, announced that it would ban all kinds of political advertisements on the platform.

Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, explained the move on October 31, saying: “We believe political message should be earned, not bought.”

This ruling – set to take effect from November 22 – is expected to put pressure on Facebook which has categorically refused to take down misinformation that has been paid for.

Political ads and users

But how far do such advertisements actually affect the users?

A close study of how the ruling party used social media advertisement gives us a clue.

According to a detailed survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) on social media and political behaviour in India in 2019, one in every three people said that they read political news on social media, and only one in five share the said news. The survey found that social media users seem to be relatively more comfortable in just being passive recipients of news on social media sites.

The CSDS report notes that 41% of daily Facebook users surveyed were likely to vote for BJP and nearly half of those who said they share political news daily or sometimes on social networking sites were found to have voted for the NDA.

And as we all know, the BJP did effectively influence opinion on social media.

The CSDS report also says that only 3% respondents said that social media was their primary source for ‘news’. However, Sukumar Muralidharan, in an opinion piece in Hindu Business Line says that it is faulty because there is a difference between influence building and ‘news.’

“The older understanding of news as something the media industry produces is yielding to a new construct. News is now a collective outpouring of angst at the betrayal of all the promises that liberal democracy functions on,” he said.

News today is heavily entwined with influence operations and opinion formation. And these are controlled by visibility which, in the case of advertisement, is directly proportional to money.

In 2019, BJP and their supporters spent nearly Rs 27 crore on online advertisements which accounts for 50% of the pre-campaign social media ad spending in India, according to calculations done by BOOM on google transparency reports and Facebook Ad Library Reports.

As per data released by the Facebook Ad Library report, between February and November 2019, BJP’s official Facebook page has spent Rs 4.3 crore on political advertisements on Facebook alone. In addition to that, pages like my first vote for modi has spent Rs 1.3 crore on political advertisements via Facebook, bharat ke mann ke baat around Rs 1.4 crore, and if we took all the different pages that are explicit endorsements of BJP, that amount hikes up to Rs 4.816 crore.

Just on one social media platform.

‘Influence operation’

Political advertisements are not like regular advertisements pushing you to endorse or buy a commodity, it is a part of a system called an ‘influence operation.’

When a party is asking for your vote, they are also asking for your willingness to pass certain ideologies and mandates.

“Since influence operations rely on the dissemination of partisan viewpoints, they often make use of platforms that appeal to their audience’s patriotic fervour. Therefore instead of questioning the veracity of the information, these campaigns appeal to an individual’s patriotic duty to share this information widely,” Apar Gupta writes in The Hindu.

A political advertisement decides whether you vote for clean air or cow-hospitals, for air-strikes or more employment, for transparency or a powerful troll army. It is an advertisement to choose who will decide the legislation and regulation for your country.

My point being? Even what we do not actively understand as ‘news’ is influencing us in opinion formation.

CSDS results confirm that political biases are cemented by social media consumption. But the case against political advertisement is not just a whine against the violation of Article 19 (hegemonic flooding of a space with one narrative by paying money is an indirect violation of freedom of expression for all), it is also about a growing fear of selling our government to massive corporate interests.

The danger of campaign funding is that no one knows where the money comes from. We do not know who is backing this well-oiled machine of campaign propaganda, and what kind of regulation has been promised to these campaign donors in return for their patronage.

Electoral bonds

Out of Rs 689.44 crore as income from unknown sources in 2017-18 audit by Association of Democratic Reforms, the share of income from electoral bonds was Rs 215 crore or 31%. These bonds, introduced in the money budget in 2018 as a transparency reform to route all political donations through banking channels, thereby making sure tax-authorities can track the expenditure, is seen as one of the most retrograde steps in electoral transparency.

These promissory notes or bonds that can be donated to any political party recognised in the constitution, are issues in absolute anonymity. That means no one knows who exactly is donating to a political party. The BJP raised about Rs 487 crore or 52.8% of the funds in 2017-18 through anonymous sources, according to its audit reports.

There are no reports about its earnings in 2019 yet, but between March 2018, and February 2019, Rs 6,128 crore worth of electoral bonds were bought in India, as revealed by an RTI claim.

Besides the opaque backing of political advertisement, there are clear lines that lead most electoral funding to big corporates. For example, BJP’s biggest donor is Prudent Electoral Trust. They have given Rs 52.7 crore to the BJP in March 2019, Rs 144 crore in 2018, in 2017 and Rs 252.22 crores in 2016.

The Prudent Electoral Trust is funded by Bharti Enterprises, GMR and DLF Groups, along with JMMCO, Jubilant Foodworkds and National Engineering Industries.

The money behind advertisement is either corporate backed, or a big mystery. In the face of that, banning political ads does seem like a step forward, despite arguments about boosting incumbency and difficulty defining a political ‘issue.’

In the West, banning political advertisements is a way for greater campaign transparency, maybe but for a country like ours, with a very different demographic, it could be a powerful tool in stopping the saffron-wave, or any form of economic hegemony for the matter.

That any party in the country could be bought by hefty donations by massive nameless MNCs that then wreck havoc with the common people, just because they can control and flex public opinion by buying influence through political advertisement seems to be a disservice to the internet that was once dreamt of being the most democratic space in the world.

And Twitter just gave us a way to stop it.

Sreemoyee Mukherjee is building a fortress of words in her home in the Abyss. 

Featured image credit: Annies Pratt/Unsplash