Analysis of Facebook advertisements by political parties shows that a total of 2,235 advertisements worth approximately Rs 1.59 crore ran in violation of the silence period associated with the first four phases of the Lok Sabha general elections taking place right now. The amount of money spent on advertisements by the official BJP page is more than three times the next biggest spender, the INC, and between these two parties, more than 2,000 ads in violation of the silence period have run through the elections so far.
Take, for example, the following advertisement:
Neha yaar, how can you hang up on such a cool boyfriend?!, remarks a pyjama-clad young woman to her roommate, having overheard yet another fight. Across the dreamcatcher and in the foreground of a “Keep Calm” poster, exasperated Neha responds that he’s not all that cool-shool, he only keeps calling because Modi has made mobile internet data cheap!
The sponsored advertisement, part of #MyFirstVoteForModi campaign, is targeted at Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 24. Starting from the 21st of April, the ad will be shown until the end of the elections on the 19th of May, violating the silence periods of five phases of the elections.
Violations of the silence period are routine, and cut across political parties. Using the tools provided by the Graph Application Programming Interface (API), we creatively compiled a database of sixteen political parties’ advertisements, and then queried this database to gather evidence of violations across phases 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The silence period, or the period of tranquil before the polls, is a feature of elections that aims to preserve the space for reflection before polling day. In India, it can be found in Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act of 1951, where any active campaigning by parties and candidates or display of ‘election matter,’ including through electronic media, is prohibited for a 48-hour period before the conclusion of the polls.
The task of monitoring compliance to the silence period is complicated both by the use of social media for campaigning, as well as the multi-phase nature of the Indian elections. Acknowledging this, the Election Commission of India (ECI) issued a communication to political parties calling for the letter and spirit of the law to be respected. “In a multi-phased election, the silence period of last 48 hours may be on in certain constituencies while campaign is ongoing in other constituencies. In such event, there should not be any direct or indirect reference amounting to soliciting support for parties or candidates in the constituencies observing the silence period,” the letter stated.
This is easier said than done, or even enforced.
Democracy of the loudest
Ad targeting on Facebook allows publishers of ads to define specific audiences, as well as the time period during which the ads should be shown. Such a definition can be on the basis of the location of users, their gender, interests etc. Ads can be further defined by excluding certain classes from the curated audience. Such a nature of targeting is what allows an advertisement that casually references boyfriends of young women to be made by the same party whose followers aggressively defend cultural values that militate against unmarried romantic relations.
But because ad targeting design was probably not made with silence periods of multi-phase elections in mind, it is not intuitively possible to limit ads from being shown during specific periods for specific regions. So while a large number of ads violate the silence period, it is hard to understand whether that is intentional, or simply a fallout of the design affordances. Except in certain cases.
On the 9th of April, less than two hours before the silence period for the first phase commenced, the BJP released advertisements amounting between Rs 7—16 lakh. These ads were targeted broadly, including at users residing in states that were going to the polls shortly after, on the 11th. Such a strategic investment is characteristic of the BJP. The amount of money spent on advertisements by the official BJP page is more than three times the next biggest spender, the INC, and more than ten times the third biggest spender, the Left Democratic Front of Kerala.
**Advertisement spend between February and April, as shown in the Ad library
The data accessed through the API has many shortcomings: as reported in HuffPost India, sponsored political advertisements are also run by pages that ostensibly have nothing to do with political parties, making it hard to get an authentic picture of the efforts including the money spent. Further, not all ads relating to the elections are labelled by publishers as related to ‘national importance.’ Besides, Facebook is part of a larger mosaic of companies where political propaganda circulates.
Social media platforms including Facebook have committed to acknowledging and/ or processing violations of the silence period within three hours of their reporting by the ECI. This commitment is part of a Voluntary Code of Ethics presented by the companies to the ECI, where they make commitments for a ‘free, fair and ethical’ use of social media platforms.
At the time of the writing of this article, we have filed a report of the violations found in our database to the ECI. The article will be updated with any responses by the ECI.
(The authors are investigating new forms of propaganda in social media and elections.)