Centre for Internet & Society

India’s politicians and political parties don’t seem to be buying ads on Twitter just yet, even as parties are pumping money into Facebook advertising.

The article by Aria Thaker was published in Quartz India on March 12, 2019. Elonnai Hickok was quoted.

As of yesterday (March 11), Indian content is now visible on Twitter’s Ad Transparency Centre: an archive that displays promoted tweets that have been run over the past week. Quartz searched the archive’s records to see if it showed any ads being run by major politicians and political parties, and could not find a single one. (The archive only permits you to search accounts individually—not to click to see all campaign ads at once. Quartz’s manual searches of dozens of politicians and political accounts did not yield any results, however.)

The only accounts seen to have run ads related to politics were media organisations, like television channel Times Now and news aggregation startup Dailyhunt.

Twitter has rolled out the initiative as part of its attempts to boost transparency ahead of India’s upcoming general election. Political campaign ads in the archive, Twitter says, will be accompanied by details about the demographics of audiences they are targeting. And if any promoted tweet is found to have violated Twitter’s rules, the transparency centre will list that it was suspended, and why.

Two days ago, the chief commissioner of the Election Commission of India (ECI) said that Twitter, along with Google, Facebook, and Youtube, has promised to ensure that all political ads on its platform will need to be pre-approved by the poll body’s media certification and monitoring panel.

In order to run political campaign ads, Twitter’s political content policy requires organisations to submit certain identification documents.

“The Transparency Ad Centre along with the Political Content Policy is a welcome step to bringing transparency to promoted and political promoted tweets,” Elonnai Hickock, chief operating officer of the Indian think tank The Centre for Internet and Society, told Quartz. “Going forward, it will be important to see how the system is enforced—identifying, categorising, and tagging content and accounts in violation of this framework.”

The Facebook comparison

While Twitter so far remains a ghost town for political ads, Facebook, which recently rolled out its own ad archive in India, is far from it. Many politics-related pages have spent handsomely on Facebook ads. In Facebook’s ad archive report for the period between February and March 2019, a total of more than Rs4.1 crore ($588,000) was spent on politics-related advertising. Around 70% of this advertising so far has come from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and BJP-affiliated groups.

Favouring Facebook over Twitter seems a rational choice, in most ways. Twitter has less than 35 million users in India, according to statistics portal Statista, while Facebook is thought to have around 300 million.

Twitter is also often thought of as an echo chamber for English-speaking elites—not the grassroots population. Those constituents are generally considered far more reachable through other technological means, including via Facebook, SMS, and WhatsApp.

Translucent, more than transparent

While it may yet be early to determine the overall usefulness of Twitter’s ad transparency centre, the simple comparison with Facebook’s archive shows several areas in which the microblogging platform could stand to be more transparent.

For general, non-political advertising, Twitter’s archive only displays promoted tweets that have run over the course of the past seven days. It is not clear what Twitter’s rationale is for cutting off access to ads after a week passes.

But for politics-related promoted tweets, Twitter plans to display the ads as well as targeting information indefinitely. “All certified political accounts on Twitter will have their ads displayed indefinitely on the Ads Transparency Center. Other information such as billing details, spend, targeting, etc. will also remain indefinitely,” a Twitter spokesperson clarified to Quartz.

The transparency centre also only includes promoted tweets—not in-stream video ads, which are another form of promoted content that can be used in India. “We are working to include other ad formats in the future,” Twitter’s frequently-asked-question section on the transparency centre reads.

But perhaps the most significant hindrance to genuine research on the transparency centre is the fact that it, unlike Facebook’s ad archive, cannot be searched for specific key terms used in ads. For example, while Facebook’s archive allows you to search for all ads that mention the words “prime minister Narendra Modi,” there is no way to run such a query on Twitter’s archive.

To see what politics-related ads are being run in India, one has to manually search through the ads from relevant accounts. The major issue with this is that, especially when it comes to social media advertising, it is not always political parties’ official accounts that run the most aggressive, or the most worrisome, advertising.

Say, for example, a little-known account—an unverified one, which is not outwardly affiliated with any particular politicians—started to run polarising, religion-related ads that helped a particular party. Twitter’s portal would not provide a simple way of helping a user discover this behaviour—exactly the sort of thing that a transparency resource should do.

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