No light down the rabbit hole of online political advertising

While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has said his company would no longer accept political advertisements, the online ecosystem of such advertising is dominated by Facebook and Google. Facebook gets much more advertiser interest because of the level of targeting available, as well as the possibility of engagement through comments, likes, and shares. However, as more and more advertisers, including politicians and political parties, embrace this advertisement platform, keeping a tally on election spending becomes an issue. In India, since February, when the data became available, advertisers on social issues, elections or politics had spent Rs. 39.1 crore on Facebook, and political advertisements on Google amounted to Rs. 29.3 crore. Despite the Election Commission and web platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter agreeing to a “voluntary code of ethics”, analysis of data on online advertising for the recent Maharahstra Assembly election suggests that identifying the sources of such campaigns is not easy. The accompanying table shows some of the top spenders who targeted their ads at Facebook users in Maharashtra from August 1 to October 29. Three of the entities — Shiv Sena, BJP- Maharashtra, and Indian National Congress-Maharashtra — have verified pages, and the communication agencies working for them or the party behind the pages are listed as advertisers. However, the identities of the other three entities are not clear, with inactive phone numbers. For the top spender, the page ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’, loosely meaning ‘Can see the difference, Shivaji-style rule is back’, the phone number given is inactive. The address is also incomplete, mentioning just a street in Nagpur, and the website does not exist. While ‘My First Vote For Modi’ has a functioning website, the phone number listed is inactive. Interestingly, the address given is that of the BJP’s headquarters in Delhi. There were no responses to emails sent to the ids of the advertisers of these two pages.

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