Indian politicians won’t mind Twitter’s ban on political ads

Jack Dorsey announced that Twitter will ban political ads. The move won't have an impact on India as political parties are spending on Google and Facebook

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

“There is no right or wrong, only thinking makes it so.”

First, it was Adam Neumann and then Mark Zuckerberg who was completely peeled off by the US Media. However, in all this madness, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter came out as the darling of the Internet. Unless you had a very long Diwali hangover, you might have read Twitter banning political ads on its platform. The decision comes at a crucial time prior to the US elections, was announced right before Facebook’s Q3 2019 earnings report. Talk about timing, Jack’s tweets got all the attention and no one bothered about Facebook’s earnings.

Twitter bans political ads

The Twitter thread very well summarises the platform’s stand with UK and US elections around the corner. Jack values the importance of internet advertising but at the same time, he understands the power it brings to politics, where it can influence voters and the lives of millions. The tweet that caught the maximum attention after the first tweet is the one where Jack cheekily makes a reference to Facebook and how Twitter is determined to do things that they believe is right for the greater good.

With Twitter taking a stand against political ads, all eyes are on Mark Zuckerberg. The CEO and founder of Facebook made it clear that it won’t be banning political ads, even if they are misleading people and creating unfavorable situations for society. Speaking at the Georgetown University Mark referred to Facebook as a champion of “free expression” and doesn’t want to be the referee.

“Given the sensitivity around political ads, I’ve considered whether we should stop allowing them altogether. But political ads are an important part of voice – especially for local candidates, up-and-coming challengers and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise. Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

Facebook has clearly stated that it won’t be doing fact-checking but will allow the users to decide what is good and not. Facebook is your savior of free speech but not when it comes to profit. “When profit comes up against democracy, Facebook chooses profit,” tweeted Senator Elizabeth Warren. She was the one who showed how Facebook can shape the destiny of a country by influencing a democratic election.

Wired thinks that Mark’s view of free speech on Facebook is still stuck in 2004.

Zuckerberg is still pushing the utopian view about news and information as to when he started Facebook 15 years ago: Voters and citizens can figure out for themselves what is true and what is false. They can distinguish between a news story and an editorial in The Wall Street Journal, or a screed in Breitbart versus a news story in The New York Times.

Facebook will not ban political ads

Will Facebook change its stance after Twitter’s move? The answer is no. Defending Facebook’s stance Mark added: “Over the next year of the campaign, we’re going to be at the center of the debate any time there’s a policy that people believe may advantage their side,” he said. “I expect that this is going to be a very tough year.” He also clarified that it isn’t about profits or supporting a particular group. “We estimate that these ads from politicians will be less than 0.5% of our revenue next year … We believe deeply that political speech is important and that’s what’s driving us.”

“Frankly, if our goal were to make either side happy, we’re not doing a very good job, because we’re making everyone frustrated with us.”

Facebook is having a tough year so far but not when it comes to revenues. The company reported strong revenue and profit growth for the third-quarter which went almost unnoticed.

The share prices jumped as much as 4% in after-hours trading. Revenues grew 29% year-over-year to $17.7bn, and profits grew 19% to $6.1bn. Facebook also reported continued user growth, with 2.45bn monthly average users and 2.8bn across the company’s full stable of apps, which includes WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger.

Twitter’s latest decision is a move in the right direction but with a little impact. According to Guardian, Twitter’s political advertising operation had just 21 advertisers across the entirety of the EU during the parliamentary elections this year. This isn’t the case with Facebook – NewYorkTimes reported how President Trump is outspending every democrat on Facebook. So far this year, Trump has spent about $5 million on Facebook advertising

Trump spends on Facebook Ads

Indian politicians are spending money on Facebook

Earlier in 2019, Indian general elections were held to constitute the 17th Lok Sabha, the most expensive elections ever anywhere. According to a study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a staggering Rs 55,000-60,000 crore was spent by political parties. Effectively, an estimated Rs 100 crore spent in each Lok Sabha constituency and an approximate Rs 700 per vote was spent.

Lok Sabha Estimated Expenditure

According to the report, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spent about 45% of the total amount in the recently concluded parliamentary polls. On the other hand, Congress, which had spent 40% of the total poll expenditure in 2009 when it was in power, spent about 15-20% in 2019.

BJP also had the lion’s share when it came to digital advertising. According to Facebook’s Ad Library Report, political parties have spent over Rs 53 crore on digital platforms like Google and Facebook between February and May.

BJP spent Rs 4.23 crore on over 2,500 ads on Facebook. Supporting pages like ‘My First Vote for Modi’, ‘Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat’ and ‘Nation with NaMo’ too, infused over Rs 4 crore on ads on the social networking platform that has well over 200 million users in India. On Google’s platforms, it has spent more than Rs 17 crore.

The Indian National Congress spent Rs 1.46 crore on Facebook for 3,686 ads. It shelled out another Rs 2.71 crore on Google’s platforms with 425 ads.

According to Facebook’s Ad Library, BJP lead the digital advertising during the recently concluded Maharashtra State Elections. “BJP emerged as the top spender with Rs 536,590 spent on 71 advertisements. While the BJP’s ally Shiv Sena has spent Rs 45,013 on a mere 4 ads, Indian National Congress has spent Rs 47,304 on 33 ads and NCP Rs 26,660 on 50 ads for the same period.”

So far Twitter isn’t the platform for political parties to invest in ads. Quartz looked at Twitter’s Ad Transparency Center in March 2019 but it failed to find any political ads. “The only accounts seen to have run ads related to politics were media organisations, like television channel Times Now and news aggregation startup Dailyhunt.”

Influencers are your new advertisers

Facebook and Google are massive drivers of digital advertising in India. Twitter falls short before Facebook and Google when it comes to targeting and pricing. However, Twitter serves the purpose of conversation and is a medium of expression. But at the same time, Twitter is also a proliferating ground for hate and trolls. 2015 Loksabha Elections changed the way Indians looked at social media platforms. Any given day Twitter trends were dominated by the ruling party or the opposing party. These conversations were not paid but supported by the fanboys of different beliefs and political parties.

Recently, Bollywood’s megastar Shah Rukh Khan(SRK) celebrated his 54th birthday and from dawn, almost every Twitter trend was related to SRK. Undoubtedly, the world loves SRK, imagine the same for a political party. Remember when Asharam Bapu and Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh were arrested, everyday Twitter trends were dominated by the followers telling why their respective spiritual gurus are innocent and the cases should be dropped. The market already has digital agencies and an army of fans to hack trends on Twitter. There is no way such activities can be regulated.

This also brings to the point of influencers and the growth of new mediums like TikTok. The Chinese app which is a current sensation for Indians living in Tier-2 and 3 states isn’t supporting political ads but there are ways to hack the system. One of the simplest ways is partnering with influencers who will carry the message forward to their seizable following.

Prior to the Haryana elections, BJP chose Sonali Phogat for the Adampur seat against Congress MLA Kuldeep. It was debated that she was selected because of her enormous fan base on TikTok, however, her digital following didn’t convert into winning the seat.

Twitter’s new move is bold but has some unanswered questions such as how will it monitor individuals running political ads, protest ads, etc. Medianama has raised the same with Twitter but it has declined to provide any clarification.

For now, Twitter is the good boy of the Internet. Even if it has a global reach problem, a truth that Jack has acknowledged in his Twiter thread. But will it force Facebook to change it’s stance, most unlikely. Twitter won’t have a large impact still, it is a brave move.

Image credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg / Getty Images