-OpEd-

NEW DELHI — 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 the 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.

A close study of how India's ruling party used social media advertisement gives us a clue on how such advertisements actually affect the users. According to a detailed survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) on social media and political behavior in India in 2019, one in every three people said that they read political news on social media and only one in five shares that same 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.

News today is heavily entwined with influence operations and opinion formation

The CSDS report notes that 41% of daily Facebook users surveyed were likely to vote for (Bharatiya Janata Party) 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 (National Democratic Alliance) NDA. It is commonly known that 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 the 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 an advertisement, is directly proportional to money.

In 2019, BJP and their supporters spent nearly 270 million rupees 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 40.3 million rupees on political advertisements on Facebook alone.

When a party is asking for your vote, they are also asking you to pass certain ideologies

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 fervor. 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.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, announced complete ban on political advertising. — Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd/ZUMA

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

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 propaganda, and what kind of regulation has been promised to these donors in return for their patronage. These bonds are seen as one of the most retrograde steps in electoral transparency.

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. 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 the 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 India, with a very different demographic, it could be a powerful tool in stopping 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.


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