Rs 2.5 crore was spent on advertisements related to politics and issues of national importance in India that ran on Facebook or Instagram between March 2 and 16, according to Alt News’s weekly analysis of Facebook ad library data.
Out of this expenditure, the top 20 pages spent more than Rs 1.9 crore, with pro-Bharatiya Janata Party pages putting down over Rs 1.5 crore. A distant second were ads for the Biju Janata Dal at Rs 15.2 lakh, followed by pro-YSR Congress ads (Rs 12.7 lakh), ads by the Karnataka government (Rs 5 lakh) and pro-Congress pages (Rs 1.68 lakh).
The table below shows the expenditure by the top 20 pages between March 2 to 16.
This is reflected in column C, which is the difference between total expenditure till March 16 (column D) and total expenditure up to March 2 (column E).
Among the highest spenders, the Facebook page dedicated to BJP’s election campaign titled Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat spent the maximum – Rs 87.3 lakh. The second in line was a pro-BJP page called Nation with NaMo, with an expenditure of over Rs 43 lakh.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was placed third with a total ad spending of Rs 15.2 lakh between March 2 to 16. At the fourth place was pro-YSR Congress advertisements by Indian Political Action Committee, amounting to nearly Rs 13 lakh, up from Rs 53,992 two weeks before. I-PAC is a political advocacy group that provides strategies for election campaigns. Placing fifth was the central government page MyGov India, which spent over Rs 8.3 lakh.
My First Vote For Modi
At sixth place among the top 20 advertisers was a Facebook page named My First Vote For Modi, which spent a little over Rs 11,000 till March 2. It pumped up the expenditure to nearly Rs 76 lakh in just two weeks.
My First Vote For Modi is a recently-developed Facebook page. It was introduced in January and has only 45,000 followers. Despite this, the page spent more on political ads than the BJP’s official page. As seen in Column E of the table, the BJP’s official Facebook page spent Rs 66 lakh on political ads till March 2 – a figure that remained constant till March 16 (Column D).
Registered at BJP headquarters
Upon accessing the ad library data of My First Vote For Modi, Alt News found that the address provided in the disclaimer information of the page is that of BJP headquarters in Delhi: 6-A, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg, Near ITO, Minto Bridge Colony, Barakhamba, New Delhi 110002.
Another aspect that came to our notice was the page’s corresponding website – https://nationwithnamo.com/MyFirstVoteForModi.
Nation with NaMo
Nation with NaMo is another pro-BJP Facebook page that had higher spendings on political ads than the BJP’s official Facebook page – Rs 43 lakh – and stood second only to Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat.
Nation with NaMo also provides the address of BJP headquarters in the disclaimer information.
In the past, Alt News had found that Nation with NaMo was circulating misinformation to depict positive changes brought about by the Modi government since it came to power in 2014. The page had also put out job applications last year, calling IIT and IIM graduates to drive Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign.
Questions of transparency
Facebook’s ad policies require pages to reveal advertiser details in case they are sponsoring ads related to politics, yet the two pages discussed in this report provided names of websites as the disclaimer. A website is not an individual and it is nearly impossible for social media users to trace the people behind it.
The disclaimer information does not necessarily disclose the names of the individuals or organisations pumping in lakhs of money to shape public opinion online.
Users also cannot rely on the contact information provided by these pages. The phone number given by My First Vote For Modi is 6372802105. The number given for Nation With NaMo is 6372802059. Apart from the last three digits, the numbers match. Searching for both the numbers on Treucaller throws up the identical result: “not yet available”. Calling up the numbers is also fruitless because both are switched off.
The sole lead that we have is the address provided by the pages, which matches BJP headquarters in Delhi. This raises two questions. Does the BJP fund these pages to sponsor political ads favouring the party? If the BJP is, in fact, responsible, has the expenditure been disclosed to the Election Commission?
This article first appeared on Alt News.