Delhi Elections Get Vicious on FB, Courtesy Cash-Rich BJP Proxies
As loudspeakers are mounted, makeshift podiums built and door-to-door campaigns initiated across Delhi this winter, a simultaneous cash-rich election campaign has been unfolding on social media.
Over the last month, offline and online campaigns for the Delhi Assembly elections, however, have gradually assumed a distinct character. In this regard, the Bharatiya Janata Pary (BJP) offers the most apparent distinction.
While BJP candidates are directly taking on the incumbent Aam Aadi Party (AAP) on ground; on social media, it is not the BJP but unofficial proxy pages of the party that are spending on advertisements and sustaining campaigns on behalf of the party.
According to data published by Facebook Ads Library between 21 December 2019 and 19 January, the top 10 political advertisers on Facebook have spent a combined total of Rs 61.92 lakh or almost Rs 2 lakh a day to target Delhi voters.
While AAP leads the pack with a total spending of Rs 15.64 lakh, BJP comes in second with a total ad expenditure of Rs 10.19 lakh.
In BJP’s case however, a bulk of the ad spending has come not from the official party pages but from surrogate pages like Main Hoon Dilli, AAP Ke PAAP & Paltu Aadmi Party. It is not clear who is funding these pages or whether they are linked to the party. Technically, this cannot be considered BJP’s expenditure.
Parallel to BJP Delhi’s attacks on Twitter, the campaign mounted by cash-rich proxies are sharply focused on targeting Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal as communal, “riot mongering” with liberal doses of dog-whistling around the violence in Jamia Millia Islamia and other parts of Delhi.
Delhi BJP’s official Twitter handle made an image of a bus burning and Kejriwal in a skullcap its pinned tweet. A pinned tweet features prominently at the top of a Twitter account.
Compare this to the paid promotions by proxy pages like AAP Ke PAAP and Main Hoon Dilli which is running images of Kejriwal in a skullcap and with the caption “Yadi aap Kejriwal ke kartooto se pareshaan hain toh iss page ko like kare” (Like this page if you’re tired of Kejriwal’s gimmicks).
How Facebook Spending Stacks Up
Here’s how the three main rivals stack up in terms of Facebook spending for election advertisements between 21 December 2019 and 19 January.
AAP: Rs 16,68,037
BJP: Rs 10,19,451
Congress: Rs 1,96,422
AAP’s total spending, however, is under two heads – one by the official Aam Aadmi Party page and one by ‘Lage Raho Kejriwal’ election campaign page run by IPAC. Political strategist Prashant Kishore’s firm IPAC was signed on by Arvind Kejriwal’s party to help with election and campaign strategising.
AAP: Rs 4,19,033
IPAC: Rs 12,49,004
The Congress, however, unlike the other two parties, is spending on election ads only through its official page.
BJP Proxies Spend Rs 8.86 Lakh
It is noteworthy that BJP’s official Facebook page has neither put up a single advertisement on its official page, nor spent a single Rupee on campaigning on Facebook.
While the official BJP page focuses primarily on promoting the newly amended Citizenship Act, the task of taking on AAP on social media appears to have been left to pro-BJP pages. This involves spending on election advertisements, running a campaign and connecting with the voters.
Three pro-BJP pages have taken on the mantle although there is little transparency regarding the administrators of these pages.
Main Hoon Dilli: Rs 5,59,938 on 112 ads
Paltu Aadmi Party: Rs 2,67,270 on 72 ads
AAP Ke PAAP: Rs 58,933 on 132 ads
Little Transparency in Proxies
A dive into the three pages reveals a pattern of operation through six points:
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 AAP and Congress 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 Main Hoon Dilli page shows ‘ Digboi Road, Tinsukia 786173’. 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. Most of these allegations, such as unauthorised colonies, “Dilli Ko jalaane ki saazish” (Conspiracy to burn Delhi), anti-trader policies.
- The information about who has registered these websites has also been carefully hidden. All three websites have been registered by domainsbyproxy – a domain registration service that anonymises details of the domain owner.
A Proxy Pattern Emerges
This coordinated behaviour 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.
Three Facebook pages, claiming to be independent supporter 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 between February and April.
Huffington Post India, on 4 April, published an investigative story on how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turned a women’s NGO into a secretive but highly influential propaganda machine.
A 3-Pronged Campaign Strategy
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 AAP Ke PAAP’s role appears to be to launch caustic attacks on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP government, Paltu Aadmi Party’s campaign involves memes, satire and caricatures of Kejriwal and his party.
Main Hoon Dilli, in the meantime, borrows elements from the other two pages but has essentially positioned itself as one highlighting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achievements along with testimonies of individuals who support the party.
However, two common threads running through the three pages reveal the party’s overall campaign strategy:
- First, a majority of the claims made against CM Arvind Kejriwal, AAP and other AAP candidates border on misinformation and are loaded with dubious assertions.
- Second, since January, a large number of paid promotions have focused sharply on the violence in Jamia Millia Islamia and thus, attack Kejriwal and AAP MLA and Okhla candidate Amanatallah Khan as “communal” and “riot mongering”
AAP Ke PAAP
This page was created on 8 January 2020 and has since launched caustic attacks on the AAP government. The page also has a standalone website which serves as a repository of images and videos meant for quick download and circulation on WhatsApp.
Paltu Aadmi Party
The page was created on 6 February 2019 as “Pradushit Aam Aadmi Party” and its name was later changed to Paltu Aadmi Party on 28 February 2019.
The images below are among the paid promotions that ran with the caption, “Ayyash Kejriwal ko dikhaye uss ka aukaat, iss page ko like kar ke de humara saath” (Show extravagant Kejriwal his place, support us by liking this page) and “Yadi aap Kejriwal ke kartooto se pareshaan hain toh iss page ko like kare” (Like this page if you’re tired of Kejriwal’s gimmicks).
Main Hoon Dilli
Created on 27 November 2019, the page bears the lotus symbol of the BJP in its logo. Its standalone website contains a detailed list of allegations by the BJP against the AAP government and it also invites voters to give a missed call on a number and register their suggestions to improve Delhi.
Its paid promotions on Facebook focus on PM Modi and the achievements of the BJP government at the Centre.