India parties lag behind West in spending on Facebook, Google election ads

A kitemaker displays customised kites made ahead of the Lok Sabha elections results 2019, in Amritsar, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Photo: PTI
Indian political parties may have spent less than 1 per cent of their overall spending on Facebook and Google advertisements. 

This is in contrast to elections elsewhere in the world. The US saw allocations of around 6.5 per cent to the two tech giants. The UK saw around 10.5 per cent. 

The analysis is based on Facebook and Google disclosures on electoral advertisements, and estimates from studies looking at political spending in various countries.

Indian political parties spent Rs 27.8 crore on Facebook advertisements in 2019. Google advertisements saw spending of  Rs 2 7.4 crore, showed the data as of May 22 — the day before results were declared.

New Delhi’s Centre for Media Studies estimated that Indian political parties’ 2019 election spending reached $8.7 billion (or around Rs 60,000 crore). This would mean allocations to the digital media work out to less than 1 per cent in spending.

In comparison, the general election in the UK in 2017 saw around Rs 27 crore spent on Facebook. Google saw around Rs 8 crore. However, the UK elections saw significantly lower overall spending than India. The UK general elections had an expenditure of only around £40 million (around Rs 333 crore) across parties in the snap polls. This would mean that the two tech giants accounted for a tenth of the spending.

A comparable figure to India’s spending may be the recently concluded midterm polls in America. The American midterms cost $5.7 billion (Rs 40,000 crore), according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an organisation that tracks political spending data in the US.

The total spending during the 2018 midterm elections was Rs 1,976 crore on Facebook. Google spending was another Rs 626 crore. The sum works out to a little over 6 per cent of spending.

The UK numbers are based on the UK Electoral Commission data and media reports. The US midterm data is as of November 2018, based on a report by Tech For Campaigns, a group of volunteer technology workers who help the Americans’ Democratic campaign. The conversion into rupees for easier comparison is based on the then prevalent exchange rates.

There is also a significant component which may be flying under the radar. The use of proxies to spread a political message makes it tougher to track spending and influence in the digital sphere, according to Sandeep Goyal, founder, Mogae Media. The segment of social media use not captured in headline statistics includes the use of WhatsApp to send messages on a large scale through multiple groups.  

“You have to assign a value to the sheer number of impressions generated through that medium,” said Goyal.

Experts across the world have pointed to the need to better capture the influence of social media.

The limitation of existing data makes it challenging for academics who wish to analyse spending and authorities who may wish to regulate them, according to a study entitled The Political Economy of Facebook Advertising: Election Spending, Regulation and Targeting Online.

“Moreover, we argue that these challenges strike at the heart of debates about democratic responsibility and the degree to which governments should cede responsibility to commercial actors who may have differing understandings of fundamental democratic norms,” said the study which appeared in the April 2019 issue of The Political Quarterly, from authors Katharine Dommett and Sam Power.

Emails sent to Google and Facebook did not receive any response.

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