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FRIENDS IN THE RIGHT PLACES

Facebook sold Modi’s BJP ads at cheaper rates than rivals ahead of Indian elections

REUTERS/Stephen Lam
Looking out for each other.
  • Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Reporter based in New Delhi.

Published

It isn’t only Asia’s richest billionaire who has helped India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win elections over the past few years. Facebook, too, played a friendly role.

An investigation by Reporters’ Collective, a non-profit media organisation based in India, and ad.watch, a research project studying political advertisements on social media, has revealed that Mark Zuckerberg’s social media platform offered cheaper advertising deals to prime minister Narendra Modi’s party. The data account for the time period between February 2019 and November 2020.

“In nine of the 10 elections, including the national parliamentary elections of 2019 that the BJP won, the party was charged a lower rate for advertisements than its opponents,” Al Jazeera reported, citing an investigation by Reporters’ Collective.

The other polls include the state elections of Odisha, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Jharkhand, Delhi, Bihar, and Maharashtra.

The Facebook advantage to Modi’s BJP

The average price that Facebook charged the BJP, its candidates, and affiliated organisations to show one ad a million times was 41,844 rupees ($546). The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, paid Rs53,776, around 29% more.

In the 22-month period, the BJP and its affiliates spent more than $1.36 million to place advertisements on Facebook through their official pages. The Congress spent $841,000.

The favourable price helped the BJP in reaching more people, giving it an unfair advantage. Notably, the BJP is also Facebook’s largest political client in India.

What did Facebook say?

Not responding to the specific allegations made by Reporters’ Collective, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said, “We apply our policies uniformly without regard to anyone’s political positions or party affiliations.”

The rules laid down by the election commission of India (EC) include a cap on the campaign expenditures of political parties to allow a level playing field. Facebook, however, has enabled the BJP in reaching more people at lower rates.

The EC hasn’t reacted to the Reporters’ Collective revelations yet. The BJP’s spokespersons haven’t commented either.

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