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Pro-BJP FB Pages Offer NaMo Products For Votes. Is This A Bribe?

Why did PM Modi endorse ‘NaMo’ shirts on Twitter? And why are pro-BJP pages on FB offering the same shirt for votes?

Updated
India
5 min read
The same merchandise that PM Modi had endorsed on 24 March was offered as freebies by pro-BJP pages in exchange for votes. 
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While Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on Wednesday and declared India as an elite power in outer space, something opaque seemed to brewing with his party in cyberspace.

On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi retweeted a tweet by “NaMo Merchandise”, endorsing the “attractive merchandise” and asking his followers, “have you ordered yours?”

Two days later, on 26 March, one of the largest political advertisers on Facebook in India, a pro-BJP page called “My First Vote for Modi”, ran advertisements offering freebies from the same NaMo Merchandise in exchange for a pledge to vote for Modi.

Now, Congress leader Divya Spandana has written to Election Commission claiming that this process “amounts to bribery” and has demanded “the page and the network of websites that support it be taken down immediately.”

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Interestingly, the “My First Vote for Modi” page’s official address on Facebook is the same address as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national headquarters - 6A, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, Near ITO, New Delhi, India 110002.

So, how much has this page, that targets first-time voters, spent on political advertisements? It was the single largest political advertiser in the country in the last week, having spent Rs 46.62 lakh (16-23 March), according to Facebook’s ads library. 

In the last month (February-23 March), “My First Vote for Modi” spent a total of Rs 61.72 lakh, on 5,984 advertisements. The freebies on offer include t-shirts, badges, backpacks, phone covers and caps.

The advertisements ran on 26 March on ‘My First Vote for Modi’ page, according to Facebook ads library.
The advertisements ran on 26 March on ‘My First Vote for Modi’ page, according to Facebook ads library.
(Photo: My First Vote for Modi/ Facebook)

Curious Case of BJP HQ Address

In analysing paid political ads on Facebook, two other prominent pages feature alongside ‘My First Vote for Modi’ – ‘Nation With NaMo’ and ‘Bharat ke Mann ki Baat’.

All the three pages, apart from being pro-BJP pages, have another thing in common. They all have the same address, which is the BJP’s official headquarters at ITO in New Delhi.

However, among the three pages, only ‘Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat’ as an entity has officially been launched by BJP President Amit Shah and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on 3 February, as the party’s outreach campaign ahead of the Lok Sabha Elections.

All three pro-BJP pages show the BJP HQ  as their address.
All three pro-BJP pages show the BJP HQ as their address.
(Photo: The Quint/ Facebook)
While the other two pages/websites appear to be part of the same entity and linked to one another, there is no transparency on whether they are directly linked to BJP. The party, on its part, has not revealed its relation to ‘My First Vote For Modi’ or ‘Nation With NaMo’ pages.

In the last one month up to 23 March, the three pages spent over Rs 4 crore on nearly 12,000 political advertisements on Facebook.

Political ads spending for February - 23 March by top 3 pro-BJP pages (source: Facebook ads library)
Political ads spending for February - 23 March by top 3 pro-BJP pages (source: Facebook ads library)
(Photo: The Quint)

In the past week alone, the three together have spent Rs 62.92 lakh on 2,735 advertisements on Facebook.

Political ads spending for 17 March- 23 March by top 3 pro-BJP pages (source: Facebook ads library).
Political ads spending for 17 March- 23 March by top 3 pro-BJP pages (source: Facebook ads library).
(Photo: The Quint)

On the question of Facebook’s ads library, the BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya told The Quint that they “welcome all measures that usher in higher transparency”. However, when asked about the addresses of the pages matching that of the BJP HQ, he offered no comment.

Interestingly, BJP’s official Facebook page has spent much less in comparison and its advertisements mention nothing about the elections nor canvases for votes. In the last month it has spent Rs 7.37 lakh on 593 advertisements, finding itself at  a modest 13th rank in terms of money spent by political advertisers. 
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A Loophole Around the EC’s Monitoring of Online Ads?

On 10 March, when the Election Commission of India announced the poll dates, it also elaborated upon a number of measures to monitor political activity online.

  • Candidates will have to declare their expenditure on political ads on social media at the time of filing nominations.
  • All political advertisements by candidates and parties will be vetted by a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee.

These rules were accepted by all the major social media platforms including Facebook and are present in the voluntary “Code of Ethics” – a set of 8 commitments – that the major platforms collectively submitted to the Chief Election Commissioner, Sunil Arora.

However, the EC or the ‘Code of Ethics’ say nothing about paid political advertisements by non-candidates or non-party pages or individuals.

Moreover, Facebook has kept vital disclosures voluntary in its ads library. Therefore, advertisements can run without information on the sponsor of the advertisement, the phone number or address of the sponsor.

“Voluntary declaration means there no verification by Facebook. I am free to put in any address,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of AltNews.

“The purpose is lost if there is no legal entity – an individual or an organisation – to hold accountable. ‘Nation with NaMo’ or ‘My First Vote for Modi’ are not registered companies. Facebook has a failure in the sense that they have not done enough to ensure financial transactions can be linked to a legal entity.”
Pratik Sinha, founder, AltNews

Questions That Follow

A number of questions arise regarding the money spent, the sponsors of the advertisements and on the EC and Facebook’s move to ensure full transparency in expenditure control.

Why do ‘My First Vote for Modi’ and ‘Nation with NaMo’ pages on Facebook show BJP’s headquarters as its address?

Since there is no name or identity attached to these pages, who is paying for the advertisements?

If the pages are indeed linked to the BJP, then do Modi’s endorsements of NaMo merchandise and the lure of merchandise in exchange for votes amount to a veiled bribe?

Has the Election Commission taken note of these practices?

“The gap here is the Opposition. The Opposition is supposed to raise these questions and ask for an enquiry. The Election Commission can launch an enquiry if an Opposition party raises this issue,” said Pratik Sinha.

The Quint has sent a list of questions to the Election Commission. This story will be updated once a response is received.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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