It is a good step to bring transparency to direct advertisements with political branding, but how to check social media influencers?
Starting February 21, political advertisements on Facebook will carry disclaimers with details about the source and sponsor of such advertisements. This is aimed at reducing the misuse of Facebook — which has around 294 million monthly active users in India — by political parties as a campaign tool for the upcoming general election.
While this may be considered a good step by Facebook, this is unlikely to stop the platform from being used to drive political agenda, something Facebook learnt from its experience during elections in Brazil, the United Kingdom and the United States.
While this new move by Facebook is expected to have an impact on paid advertisements, what about the role played by social media influencers? Social media influencers have a considerable sway over the thousands and millions of followers they have on Facebook (and other social media platforms). It’s a known fact that political parties in the past have approached these influencers for propaganda purposes. Thus, what might appear as innocuous posts by such influencers, in reality, is the equivalent of a paid advertisement. Such a surrogate way of advertising has an indirect influence on the psyche of the voter. Facebook’s latest decision to make advertisements transparent does not address this issue.
Facebook’s decision could be a blessing in disguise for these influencers who are likely to be in demand for endorsing political campaigns.
There is another thing that needs to be taken into account. What happens to WhatsApp, which was used by political parties during some state elections, including the 2017 state polls in Uttar Pradesh, in an unfair manner to their advantage?
Despite WhatsApp reportedly spending around Rs 120 crore in India for public awareness, the use of WhatsApp as a bulk messaging tool by political parties has not come down. WhatsApp, which has around 200 million monthly active users, is a preferred platform for communication for a majority of the youth. The youth are the prime target audience for any political party. What complicates things further is that WhatsApp is used more at a personal level, mainly by party volunteers to spread agenda-driven (mis)information, and less at an evidently institutional (including political parties) level. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress have been focussing on how to use social media tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp to reach and influence voters.
Both WhatsApp and Facebook are two primary tools used in spreading misinformation or fake news. As a BBC study noted, WhatsApp has been struggling to control fake news in India. Interestingly, Facebook’s move comes after the government’s warning to penalise social media platforms if any attempt was made to influence the electoral process through undesirable means.Truth be told, penalising social media platforms does not answer the problem. Beyond a point, political parties, the Election Commission of India, and, above all, the voters need to be cautious against political propaganda, half-truths and fake news.