How much did the BJP spend on political ads on Facebook in 2019? Were there more ads in the southern or the northern States?
Such questions are beginning to be of immense interest to researchers, journalists and citizens. In the last few months, Facebook came under fire for its policy on political ads, Twitter announced it would stop all political advertising, and Snapchat said it subjects all ads, including political ones, to review.
“The very nature of public space has changed with the advent of communication platforms like Facebook,” says Manuel Beltrán, artist, activist and researcher. As he says, a billboard on the road reads the same for everyone. “They belong to the same shared reality. But with targeted advertisements, people receive personalised messages on phones and computers, which means they cannot have a proper discussion.”
Transparent? Not really
Nayantara Ranganathan, a lawyer with the New Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project, talks of the “predatory nature of how these ads are delivered, according to one’s interests, behaviour, demographics, region, etc. It becomes impossible to fathom how we as a society are consuming information and how it is different from each other’s.”
Trying to understand the new infrastructures of political propaganda, Ranganathan and Beltrán launched ad.watch in July. The website compiles information on political ads running on Facebook and Instagram of more than 300 political actors across 39 countries.
The interface shows, among other things, the regional distribution, timeline of ads, demographic targeting, money spent, attention gained, and the ad content. It answers interesting questions such as the amount of money Donald Trump spent on advertising ‘The Wall’ or the misinformation spread around Brexit.
In March, Facebook had rolled out an improved Ad Library to make “advertising more transparent and to give people more information about the ads they see”. It had expanded access to its Ad API (application program interface) to “help more people analyse political or issue ads.” But both these ‘transparency’ tools, says Ranganathan, are inadequate and difficult to access. “The database is haphazard. You need a certain level of technical knowhow to use it, which means very few people will be able to navigate it or make any practical use of it.”
Ad.watch, on the other hand, presents all ads available on the API on simple interfaces, helping even a layman access and use the information. The website, which took over four months’ work for the first release, is valuable to anyone, from an investigative journalist to a commoner trying to decipher political narratives.
Thus, you find that the BJP’s official page spent over ₹4 crore on political ads in 2019, the year Modi returned to power. The Congress comes next with a spend of about ₹2.5 crore, while Naveen Patnaik, at ₹83 lakh, comes a distant third.
The country’s Hindi belt saw over 16,000 ads in the run-up to the elections, while the five southern States together saw around 6,800 ads. Though the Northeast accounts for only 25 seats in the Lok Sabha, the region saw over 14,300 ads. BJP accounted for 10,000 or over 70% of these. It also won 14 seats in the Northeast.
Ad.watch, supported by Stadtkuratorin Hamburg, is the only successful attempt, so far, at assimilating political advertisement data provided by Facebook. Technical issues and bugs have stalled previous attempts, such as those undertaken at Mozilla and New York University. “Putting together the datasets was tedious work,” says Beltrán. There were huge hurdles that complicated their research. “It revealed how Facebook deliberately wants to make this data inaccessible,” he says.
To get access, one has to undergo a complex identity verification process. For Bengaluru-based Ranganathan, it meant changing her Facebook profile name to reflect the name on official documents, submitting a scanned copy of a government ID, and letting a Facebook official come home for address verification.
“Facebook sent someone to take photos of my house, talk to my mother, and get her signature just so I could have access to public interest information available on its API,” she says. Moreover, Facebook gives access to this data to citizens of only 34 countries.
So why would Facebook, initially lauded for championing transparency, want to make accessing those tools so difficult? Because, Ranganathan says, “Transparency and privacy are both opposed to Facebook’s business model.”
In other words, revealing more information about the ads would mean divulging the amount of user-privacy intrusion and manipulation that goes into targeted advertising.
“Without transparency, we are unable to understand the extent of harm done. We are unable to study what’s illegal and to challenge it,” the duo says.
It was while they were looking at one such illegality — election silence period violations on Facebook during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — that the idea for ad.watch germinated.
“The use of social media in the Indian elections was unprecedented. We were curious about how it was playing out,” says Ranganathan. There was so much information that they decided to make the data available instead of going deeper into contextual questions.
Having met at a conference in Cape Town in July last year, Ranganathan and the Netherlands-based Beltrán have since collaborated on various technology and knowledge projects. The Internet Democracy Project, where Ranganathan works, deals with issues of privacy and surveillance, net neutrality, etc., while Beltrán is a Spanish artist who explores the socio-political implications of the human-technology relationship.
As Beltrán says, the endeavour is not to make Facebook’s transparency tools better but to question if we want a private company, driven only by profits, to control democratic processes across countries. “Or,” he asks, “Do we want to organise this new communication in a different way, not owned by big-tech corporations?”