As elections kick off in the state of Bihar, Facebook's Ad Library Report reveals that over ₹ 1.11 crore has been spent on political ads on the platform between September 26 and October 25, targetting users in the state.
We looked at the top 21 pages (pages that spent more than ₹ 50,000), and found Bharatiya Janata Party to be the highest spender with a ₹ 25.3 lakh of expenditure in the past month, closely followed by Janata Dal (United) with an expenditure of ₹ 22.1 lakh. Together, BJP and JDU - part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) spent over ₹ 42.5 lakh on political ads on Facebook in the past month, accounting for nearly 40% of the overall expenditure during this period.
Furthermore, we found three obscure pages running smear campaigns on various political leaders without any apparent affiliation to a party or organisation. Two of the pages (by the name of 'Bhak Budbak - भक बुड़बक' and 'Rashtriya Jungle Dal') targetting Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav (part of the Grand Alliance against the NDA), with an expenditure of over ₹ 5 lakh.
Another obscure page in Bengali named Khotikarok Modi (Translates to Harmful Modi in English) targetted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his NDA-led administration, and spent around ₹ 1.4 lakh in the past month.
BOOM investigated the pages putting out political ads and assigned a party-affiliation based on the type of posts made by the page. Based on this, we noticed that NDA-linked pages were far ahead of the game, as opposed to its counterparts.
While both JDU and BJP spent well above ₹ 20 lakh in the month prior to Phase 1 of elections, its opponents Lok Janashakti Party (Chirag Paswan-led party that recently split from NDA) and Congress spent ₹ 4.9 lakh and ₹ 4.2 lakh, respectively.
Rashtriya Janata Dal, another Grand Alliance member, and newcomer Plurals were far behind with an expenditure of ₹ 1.5 lakh and ₹ 1.2 lakh, respectively.
Surprisingly, West Bengal's Trinamool Congress, which is gearing up to fight the BJP in the upcoming elections in the neighbouring state next year, has also targetting Facebook users in Bihar with political ads from its official page to a tune of ₹ 1.1 lakh.
The Smear Campaign Pages
We looked at a few obscure pages running smear paid campaigns against various candidates, without any party-affiliation. Two of the pages - 'Bhak Budbak - भक बुड़बक' and 'Rashtriya Jungle Dal - were directly targetted at RJD leaders Tejashvi Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav. These pages had spent over ₹ 5 lakh in political ads on the platform.
We also found that nearly all of the ads were targetted towards male users between the age of 18-34 years.
When we tried to call the phone numbers provided in the disclaimer, we were either told that the number did not exist, or the number appeared to be out of service. We also looked up the addresses provided in the disclaimers on Google Maps, but found them to be non-existent.
This could be seen as a way to circumvent Facebook's regulations on political ads which require advertisers to explicitly reveal the details on who is paying for the ad along with contact information.
According to a report by OZY, these pages can continue running without scrutiny due to a loophole in Facebook's rules regarding political advertisement in India. Facebook confirmed to the news outlet that the numbers only "need to be reachable at the time of submission" of the application.
So advertisers can purchase a new SIM card for a one-time use just to register themselves as political advertisers and then keep the number unreachable. Following OZY's story, Facebook told the news outlet that it will scrutinise details provided in the disclaimers. However, there are still many advertisers who still unreachable, and have provided false addresses, as seen in the examples above.
BOOM reached out to Facebook for a comment, but is yet to receive a response.