Parties push Facebook ads to target voters in Bihar's pandemic polls

File Photo of PM Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Bihar
Political parties pushed their political campaigns through Facebook amid calls for social distancing to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Election Commission, while allowing campaigning, had asked political parties to ensure social distancing norms were followed, albeit reports suggested this was not always the case.

The latest Facebook data on political advertising shows that the official pages of key political players in Bihar saw varying levels of advertising activity in the 30 days leading up to the November 7 Bihar elections.

The data on spending by advertiser or pages shows that the Indian National Congress in Bihar spent over Rs 61 lakh on 1,279 advertisements (ads).

Pages for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Bihar arm (BJP Bihar),  Janata Dal (United), and Chirag Paswan (of the Lok Janshakti Party) saw between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 30 lakh in ad spends. There were over 2,200 ads from these four official pages alone.

Other individuals, such as Bihar Health Minister Mangal Pandey, also advertised during the period. There have also been ads which aren’t from an official page but which look to push up or pull down candidates, reveal the advertising archives Facebook has made available on its website. 

Facebook had increased transparency around political advertising on its platform, following criticism of its handling of the US 2016 Presidential election.  

A look at the demographic details of who was shown ads from the official pages reveal a focus on those between the ages of 25 and 34. They were also shown more often to men than women. The share of men was at times 10x or more that of women in some of the ads.  

Social media allows politicians to target voters with rare precision, noted an April 2020 study which looked at Donald Trump’s election four years ago titled ‘Politics in the Facebook Era - Evidence from the 2016 US Presidential Elections.

“We find that micro-targeted political ads on social media had significant effects when based on geographical location, ideology, ethnicity, and gender. Exposure to these ads made individuals less likely to change their initial voting intentions, particularly among those who had expressed an intention to vote for Trump. We also find that micro-targeted ads reduced turnout among targeted liberals, whereas they increased turnout and support for Trump among targeted moderates,” stated the paper authored by Federica Liberini of the University of Bath, Michela Redoano from the University of Warwick,  Antonio Russo of Loughborough University, and Ángel Cuevas and Ruben Cuevas from the Carlos III University of Madrid.

A 2019 study published in the international journal ‘Political Communication’ titled ‘Do Online Ads Influence Vote Choice?’ has shown that certain ads work better than others.  The study authored by University of Konstanz Assistant Professor Anselm Hager looked at local German elections with a focus on emotional and factual advertising.

“...we find that the factual ads, if anything, fared slightly better than the emotional ads. Our evidence thus, provides tentative support that online ads positively affect vote choice,” it stated.

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