Bihar Polls Turn Vicious on FB Courtesy Cash-Rich NDA Proxy Pages
Proxy NDA pages with little transparency have spent over Rs 10 lakh on Facebook ads attacking RJD and its leaders.
As loudspeakers are mounted, makeshift podiums built and passionate political rallies unfold in the offline dust of Bihar state elections, a simultaneous cash-rich campaign has been unfolding online as well.
Between 1 and 30 October, a total of Rs 1.32 crore has been spent on Facebook on election related advertising in Bihar, according to Facebook’s political ads library.
As the second phase of Bihar state elections get underway, Facebook saw ads worth Rs 56 lakh in just one week from 24 to 30 October. A striking feature of the online ads, however, is the absence of RJD from Facebook campaigning.
Over the last month, while BJP and JDU, with expenditures of over Rs 28 lakh and Rs 20 lakh respectively, have been the two highest spenders on Facebook, unofficial proxy BJP and NDA pages have also spent over Rs 10 lakh, emerging as one of the top advertisers.
These proxy pages operate with limited transparency and perform a crucial function for the ruling BJP-JD(U) alliance.
While the official pages focus on election promises and statements by party leaders, the bulk of the attack on RJD and Congress comes through the proxy pages in the form of aggressive memes, caustic lampooning and illustrations.
Three primary proxy pages such as ‘Rashtriya Jungle Dal’, ‘Bhak Budbak’ and ‘Modi Sang Nitish’, which promote the ruling BJP-NDA alliance, follow a strong pattern seen during the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 as well as the Delhi Assembly elections in February 2020.
They appear separately from the official party pages but function as a repository of memes and graphics with the sole purpose of levelling personal attacks as well as allegations of corruption, mismanagement and electoral apathy against BJP/NDA’s opponents.
How Much Did Parties Spend on Facebook?
Of the Rs 1.32 crore spent from 1 to 30 October, nearly 62 percent of this spending, amounting to Rs 82 lakh, has been incurred by the top 10 spenders. These include BJP, JD(U), Congress, Chirag Paswan, and the proxy pages.
BJP, which has been the highest spender, has two separate pages: BJP Bihar and Atmanirbhar Bihar. Ads for both these pages are paid for by the party. Similarly, JD(U), has two separate pages, Janata Dal United and Bihar JD(U).
Interestingly, BJP/NDA’s three proxy pages have combined to spend more than Congress and LJP (which has a page called Chirag Paswan).
Similarities of Proxy Pages with Delhi, Lok Sabha Polls
Three proxy pages promoting the BJP-JD(U) alliance have spent a combined total of Rs 10.52 lakh.
While ‘Rashtriya Jungle Dal’ has spent Rs 4.34 lakh, ‘Bhak Budbak’ has incurred an expenditure of Rs 3.35 lakh thus far and ‘Modi Sang Nitish’ has shelled out Rs 2.82 lakh.
This coordinated behaviour among proxies on Facebook is significant because it points to a larger pattern, identical to the one observed during the BJP’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2019 and the Delhi Assembly elections in 2020.
Here are some of the key similarities:
- Just like Lok Sabha and Delhi elections, there are specifically three proxy pages. They each play a specific role in attacking the Opposition in nearly identical looking memes (which we shall get to in the next section).
- The phone number provided by the advertiser for ‘Modi Sang Nitish’ Facebook page (+916359907104) is the same as the ‘Main Hoon Dilli’ page that popped up ahead of the Delhi polls.
- Moreover, all the phone numbers of proxy pages for the Lok Sabha, Delhi and Bihar Assembly elections are nearly identical, belong to Gujarat and are always switched off.
Bhak Budbak (Bihar): +916359907101
Modi Sang Nitish (Bihar): +916359907104
AAP ke PAAP (Delhi): +916359907108
During the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, three Facebook pages, claiming to be independent pages – ‘Nation With NaMo’, ‘My First Vote for Modi’ and ‘Bharat ke Mann ki Baat’ were among the biggest spenders on election-related advertisements on Facebook. The three had collectively spent Rs 4.5 crore on 13,208 advertisements.
The 3-Pronged Role of Proxy Pages
Each of the proxy pages have a specific messaging role to play in the Bihar elections. While they all attack the opposition RJD and Congress, there are some distinct variations in each of their roles.
In terms of the paid content published by the three pages, it is evident they are carrying out specific aspects of the election campaign in what appears to be a three-pronged strategy.
While Rashtriya Jungle Dal’s strategy is the most aggressive in terms of attacking RJD through memes and illustrations, Bhak Budbak’s campaign involves video clips primarily mocking RJD leader and Tejashvi’s brother Tej Pratap Yadav.
Modi Sang Nitish, in the meantime, borrows elements from the other two pages but has essentially positioned itself as one highlighting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements at the Centre and Nitish Kumar’s at the state level along with their rally clips.
Here are some examples from the two primary troll pages:
RASHTRIYA JUNGLE DAL
This page, similar to the role played by ‘AAP ke PAAP’ page during the Delhi elections, comprises memes, graphics and caricatures accusing Lalu Prasad Yadav, his wife Rabri Devi and his sons Tejashwi and Tej Pratap as corrupt, inept and the faces of “jungle raj.”
Among some of the more striking paid ads is one which depicts Lalu as a demon ‘Laluasur’. According to Facebook, the page paid about Rs 1,500 to potentially reach about 500,000 people.
Another ad claims that if RJD comes to power, it will abduct doctors from clinics and have them murdered.
Similar to Rashtriya Jungle Dal, but focusing primarily on Lalu’s family, especially his son Tej Pratap, Bhak Budbak consists mostly of short video clips that are 1-2 minutes long.
In an excerpt from a news interview, an ad claims “Dimwitted Teju has been rendered unemployed by the TikTok ban.”
Little Transparency in Proxy Pages
A dive into the three pages reveals a pattern of operation.
A defining characteristic of the three pages is the limited information available about those who are running them.
According to Facebook’s policies regarding election ads: “When an advertiser categorises their ad as being about social issues, elections or politics, they are required to disclose who paid for the ad.”
Facebook also specifies: “If ads ran without a disclaimer, this field will say, ‘These ads ran without a disclaimer’”.
These pages negotiate the disclosure requirement in the following ways:
- By stating their own website as the one paying for the ad. This is in contrast to the official party pages, whose ads have the names of specific individuals.
- By uploading phone numbers that are always switched off. Moreover, the numbers of all three pages are similar and all registered in Gujarat.
- By stating addresses that are vague or incomplete. For example: A search for the address for the person sponsoring ads on Rashtriya Jungle Dal says ‘New Market Area, Bhopal 462003’ . Similarly, the contact address for Paltu Aadmi Party is ‘C Block, Dilshad Garden, Delhi, India 110095’.
- There is heavy cross-posting of content among the three pages.
- All three pages claim to have a website with the same name as the pages. While aapkepaap.com acts as a trove of downloadable memes, images and videos to be forwarded on WhatsApp, mainhoondilli.com is a repository of 26 allegations against AAP.
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