An Analysis of Social Media Spending and Electoral Results

Mar 24, 2021

In a previous article published in this magazine, we have spoken about how technology, especially social media, can affect and influence elections. We have discussed how these social media giants can undermine the democratic processes and subvert democracy itself. In this article, let us analyze the elections from recent memory – the Bihar elections, the 2019 General Elections in India – and see what sort of an impact did social media have on the results of these elections. We are going to skip the 2020 US elections and do it in a later article, since the details of spending are still emerging as of writing this article. Not just that, but also because Facebook and YouTube purportedly made changes especially for the US elections. If you ask me whether changes will actually have any  impact, my answer would be a resounding ‘no’. These corporations stand to lose billions if they forego these lucrative deals – to influence the outcome of elections. Are these corporations willing to sacrifice profits? As with any corporate – again, a resounding NO. In a later article, we shall dig deeper into the changes  made by Facebook and YouTube and see what loopholes exist to aid in subverting the democratic processes.

Let us start with the 2019 General Elections in India. As stated previously, it was the first time that more than half the electorate had access to internet, and by extension, some form of social media. India has currently the largest user base for Facebook, ahead of US, Brazil and Indonesia. And at least in the top three countries, we have seen the influence of social media and the way they were instrumental in altering the electoral results. From Trump to Bolsonaro, extensive coverage exists to show how much of an impact Facebook and Google had on their victories – and how much they were able to manipulate people. For the purpose of this article though, we shall limit ourselves to the Indian context.

Some statistics:

Both Facebook and Google, during the 2019 General Elections, came up with a way to ensure ‘transparency’ in political ad spending. Now, we have argued even at that time that this was nothing more than an eyewash – and I shall elaborate on it in a bit. However, this still allows us to get a glimpse into what happened in the digital sphere. Let us see the declared statistics first:

Between February and May of 2019:

•Total of 1,32,419 political advertisements on Facebook

•Total of 12,276 political advertisements on Google

•On google, BJP was the highest spender – with 41.4% of all the spending (Congress was third, not second – in case you were wondering, and a very distant third with 10% of the total spending)

•Same on Facebook, with BJP leading the spending – 14.7% to Congress’s 6.1%

Now, with even just these self-declared  numbers, we can see a very clear correlation between the spending and the results. For those who do not know, BJP was the runaway winner in the 2019 elections – becoming the first party in more than 30 years to win an absolute majority in the Parliament.

Do numbers tell the (whole) truth?

Well, not the whole truth at least. Especially the numbers which are self-declared by the likes of Facebooks and Googles of the world. I mentioned above that the transparency measures are an eyewash. Allow me to explain. The ads that are reported as ‘political ads’ are only a fraction of all the political ads that are put up on these platforms. Consider entities with names like these: My First Vote for Modi or Bharat ke Mann ke Baat or Nation with NaMo. Now, clearly these are linked to the BJP campaign. However, the spending from these entities is not counted against the spending for BJP. Now, there are hundreds of such entities on these platforms which campaign for political parties, wherever their allegiance lies.

And it is not even that these are small players – during the same period (Feb to May, 2019) the three entities we just discussed were in the top 10 spenders on FB. There is really no way for us to know how much they spent nor the number of advertisements placed on these platforms by these entities. Also, how do we even know which all entities were involved?

And we did not even get to the topic of paid troll armies, employed by these parties to dump and pump content all over the internet – from posts on Facebook to WhatsApp. There are literally tens of thousands of people who are paid to do this. And their only job to post content and spread it.

NaMo and Jio – A match made in heaven

A part of the rise in the number of internet users can be attributed to the rise of Jio – offering free or very cheap data packages,