Nayantara is a lawyer and researcher based in Bangalore. She is one of the co-founders of ad.watch, a research project studying the informational turn in propaganda and influence.
Facebook’s algorithm favours polarising political groups that keep users hooked to newsfeed; BJP fits the bill with its content and gets cheaper ads. If a political party or its proxies have pumped in enough advertisements and campaigned heavily, often with emotionally or politically charged content, to increase “engagement” on Facebook, its advertisements would automatically work out cheaper.
To provide one million views for an ad, Facebook charged all advertisers promoting BJP Rs 39,552 rupees on an average. But for Congress, it charged 52,150 rupees, nearly 32% more. The favourable pricing allows BJP, Facebook's largest political client in India, to reach more voters for less money. The Collective’s findings validate Supreme Court concerns that Facebook’s policies and algorithm pose a threat to electoral politics and democracy.
The Collective’s year-long investigation found that an ecosystem of proxy advertisers is flourishing on Facebook, bypassing election laws, breaking Facebook’s own rules and undercutting the political level-playing field. Surrogate advertisements worth more than 58 million rupees, most of which promoted BJP, denigrated opposition and seeded false narratives, got a whopping 1.3 billion views for a period of 22 months, almost equal to the advertisements officially placed by BJP. They helped double BJP’s visibility without the party having to take responsibility for the content or the expenditure related to their advertisements.
The Jio-funded company, NEWJ, placed advertisements disguised as news. The advertisements triggered anti-Muslim sentiments, attacked BJP’s opponents and critics through distorted information and eulogised Modi government. Though it is illegal to publish such surrogate ads under Indian laws, loopholes in how the Election Commission applies the law give social media platforms a free pass.
TRC investigated more than 5 lakh political advertisements on Facebook and Instagram to assess the influence of Facebook on elections. We found evidence that the world’s biggest social media network systematically undercut political competition by giving unfair advantage to BJP in elections. Read our four-part investigative series here.