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Exclusive: Facebook to not allow political ads that target users' religion, caste

Political parties will not be able to place advertisements based on voters’ caste or religion.

November 18, 2019 / 04:51 PM IST

Facebook is planning to stop advertisements that micro-target potential voters, a development that could force political parties in India to rethink their social media strategy.

Micro-targeting using factors such as an individual’s caste or religion will not be allowed on the social network, said a source close to the development. Political parties and their leaders, however, will be allowed to place ads like they do in newspapers, TVs and radio.

 Facebook’s self-regulation of advertisement comes ahead of state elections in Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand and Puducherry. “Political parties will have to build campaigns around interests and liking, which requires a different kind of mindset,” a source said.

 The move comes days after Twitter decided to ban political ads, which kicks in from November 22. The micro-blogging site recently came out with its ban framework that includes restrictions on micro-targeting, a move expected to pile pressure on Facebook.

 It is not clear when Facebook restrictions will come into effect. The micro-targeting policy will apply around the world.


 So far, Facebook has allowed politicians and political parties a free run on advertising, which means that content is not subject to fact-check, one of the reasons cited by Twitter to ban such advertisements.

 India is Facebook’s largest market, even bigger than the US. The penetration into India multiplies with Instagram and WhatsApp, both owned by Facebook. 

Facebook has 241 million users in India, Instagram has about 100 million, and WhatsApp has more than 400 million. Over time, the family of apps has become an important tool for politicians to campaign and reach out to voters. 

Facebook, already under the scanner over security and privacy concerns, is seen as a platform that influences elections, as it allows politicians and their parties to display ads to smaller sections of voters with agenda-driven messaging. “That won’t be allowed,” said the person quoted above. 

What does that mean? For example, if a political party wants to display ads with specific agenda-driven content to a particular sect of Muslims living in Hyderabad, or to Dalits in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Facebook won’t allow that. 

But, political ads can be targeted based on interest, a second source said. “If someone is interested in Dalit literature, ads can be shown to that segment of people. He or she might or might not be a Dalit,” said the person.

Facebook did not reply to emails seeking comment. 

Essentially a marketing strategy, micro-targeting use people’s data—demographics, what they like, who they are connected to, what they shop and other such details—to segment them into smaller groups for content targeting. The same data is used to tailor campaigns to influence voters.

Social media played an important role in the 2019 national election in India. For instance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi added “chowkidar,” or watchman, as an appellation to his names on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His ministerial colleagues, party leaders and supporters did the same, sending a powerful message to voters.  

They were responding to the opposition Congress’ then-president Rahul Gandhi’s jibe at the Prime Minister, accusing him of wrong-doing in the Rafale fighter jet deal. 

In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, political parties spent about Rs 28 crore on Facebook advertisements. The ruling BJP was the biggest spender, at about Rs 20 crore. 

Facebook’s power to influence polls came to light when it was found that Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, had harvested personal Facebook data of millions of people for political advertising. 
Sunny Sen
first published: Nov 18, 2019 10:31 am
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