This is in contrast to elections elsewhere in the world. The United States of America saw allocations of around 6.5 per cent to the two tech giants. The United Kingdom saw around 10.5 per cent.
Indian political parties spent Rs 27.8 crore on Facebook advertisements during 2019. Google advertisements saw spends of Rs 27.4 crore, showed data as of May 22, the day before results were declared. New Delhi’s Centre for Media Studies estimated that Indian political parties’ 2019 election spends reached $8.7 billion (or around Rs 60,000 crore). This would mean allocations to the digital media works out to under one per cent in spends.
In comparison, the general election in the United Kingdom in 2017 saw around Rs 27 crore spent on Facebook. Google mopped up about Rs 8 crore. However, the UK elections saw significantly lower overall spending than India. The UK general elections had expenditure of only around 40 million pounds (around Rs 333 crore) across parties in the snap polls. This would mean that the two tech giants accounted for a tenth of spends.
A comparable figure to India’s spends may be the recently concluded midterm polls in America. The American midterms cost $5.7 billion (Rs 40,000 crore), according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, an organization which tracks political spending data in the US.
The total expenditure during the 2018 mid-term elections was Rs 1,976 crore on Facebook. Google spends were another Rs 626 crore. The sum works out to little over six per cent of overall spends.
The UK numbers are based on media reports and data released by that country's Electoral Commission. The US mid-term data is as of November 2018, based on a report by Tech For Campaigns, a group of volunteer technology workers who help the Americans’ Democratic campaign. The conversion into rupees for easier comparison are based on then prevalent exchange rates.
There is also a significant component which may be flying under the radar. The use of proxies to spread a political message makes it tougher to track spending and influence in the digital sphere, according to Sandeep Goyal, founder, Mogae Media. The segment of social media use which is not captured in headline statistics, includes the use of Whatsapp to send messages on a large scale through multiple groups.
“You have to assign a value to the sheer number of impressions generated through that medium,” he said.
Experts across the world have pointed to the need to better capture the influence of social media.
Limitation of existing data makes it challenging for academics who wish to analyse spends and authorities who may wish to regulate them, according to a study entitled, ‘The Political Economy of Facebook Advertising: Election Spending, Regulation and Targeting Online’.
“Moreover, we argue that these challenges strike at the heart of debates about democratic responsibility and the degree to which governments should cede responsibility to commercial actors who may have differing understandings of fundamental democratic norms,” said the study which appeared in the April 2019 issue of The Political Quarterly, from authors Katharine Dommett and Sam Power.
Emails sent to Google and Facebook did not receive a response.