Litmus test for Google, Facebook

Facebook, Google and Twitter, are introducing new measures to introduce transparency to political advertising. India, with its upcoming general elections, will be a crucial test site. 

These three are the most important global news dissemination platforms, with over two billion people using them as primary news sources. They also have a hammerlock on online advertising, with Google and Facebook owning dominant marketshares in specific areas, while Twitter is a distant third. Apart from their eponymous properties, Google also owns video content platform, YouTube, while Facebook is the owner of Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Barrack Obama’s first presidential campaign of 2008 was an early example of the effective use of social media. Controversy exploded in 2016, after the Brexit campaign (June 2016) and the US presidential campaign that ended with Donald Trump in the White House. 

There were successful attempts by trolls to spread misinformation and influence voting patterns during both campaigns. Private user-data on Facebook was also accessed by Cambridge Analytica during that period.  

Circa 2019, all political formations use social media and much of the usage is legitimate. But social media networks are also primary carriers of the plague of fake news, designed to manipulate opinion. Facebook’s India-specific measures will be launched in February. The first step is to remove anonymity. The company has asked advertisers and agencies to provide scanned copies of address and identity documents, to be verified by Facebook. FB has also shared a guide with politicians and bureaucrats, including all MPs, chief ministers and electoral officers of the Election Commission. 

‘Political ads’ are being defined as advertising with references to political figures, parties, elections and legislation. Administrators of pages with politically-oriented content and political advertisers must offer verified ID and location, and content from outside India may be blocked. 

Political advertisers will be asked to provide more (unspecified) details about content, along with payment details, with a compliance window of seven days. Facebook will comply with the Election Commission’s norms, including the blackout period when campaigning stops 48 hours before voting. 

This implies changing the algorithm driving Facebook’s Newsfeed. One loophole political parties exploit is that the timeline of the Newsfeed is non-chronological. Political parties swamp the platform with content just before the blackout kicks in. This ensures the content propagates during blackout and it is amplified as it is shared.  

Importantly, all ads will be tagged prominently with “paid for by” information. Users can report any ads they think are missing tags, and Facebook will track and show name changes of any pages that try to be deceptive.  

All political ads will be placed in a searchable online library containing contact information of ad buyers with official regulatory certificates. This will be archived for seven years. Going by such archives already created for the US and UK, this will display an ad’s budget, number of viewers, and anonymised data on age, gender and location of viewers. It’s unclear how easy or difficult it will be, to use shell companies to place such ads however. 

Google is intending similar measures. Google also has a searchable archive of political ads in the USA, with data about candidate names, advertisers, cost, timeline, viewers, etc. It will launch a similar archive in India. It intends to start an ID verification process by mid-February and it will tag ads with “paid for” labels. It will also generate and update a “Political Ad Transparency Report” for India. 

Twitter’s Ad Transparency Center also has a similar US archive where users can access data about ad buyers, billing information, ad spends, impression and demographics. The micro-blogging platform says it will provide a new dashboard showing  expenditures by political parties and it will work with the Election Commission to verify advertisers. It will also encourage users to report suspicious and abusive activity. 

Media planners guess that the elections alone could lead to a 100-120 per cent spike in online advertising. There’s speculation that online political advertising may hit the Rs 120 bn mark -- the total online ad-spend last year was estimated to be just about Rs 110 bn. 

All these companies are already working with external consultants to find ways to identify and weed out fake news. It remains to be seen how successful all these new measures will be. Obviously the platforms don’t want to miss out on this huge potential revenue stream and they are wary of falling foul of ECI guidelines and the proposal to introduce new restrictive changes to the IT rules. 

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