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Parties, candidates may rationalise social media campaigns during state polls as ECI makes expense filing a must

Experts suggest the EIC decision will have a deep impact on social media campaigning of political parties in the upcoming assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur among others. The disclosure of social media expenses during election campaigns was earlier not mandatory

Ahead of the upcoming assembly polls, the Election Commission of India has made it clear that all political parties will have to include their social media expenses, including online campaigns and social media ads, in their final election expenditure statements. 

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The ECI said this will include payments made to internet companies and websites for carrying ads as well as campaign-related operational expenditure on creative development of content, operational expenditure on salaries and wages paid to workers employed by such candidates and parties to maintain their social media accounts, etc.

Advertisements issued in e-papers will also require pre-certification, the commission said.

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To put it in perspective, Google, YouTube and Google’s partner properties collected Rs 27 crore as total ad spends from political parties. Of this amount, 60% ads were paid by the BJP, amounting to about Rs 17 crore. This is 500% more than the Indian National Congress, which spent about Rs 2.7 crore.

The expenses made by individual candidates on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are separate and are likely to run into crores.

At a time when political parties are going the whole hog on social media, this directive is likely to have an impact on political advertising, especially when states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Manipur are soon going to polls.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, named as a top spender on social media, has welcomed the order. The party is in preparation mode for the assembly elections.

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A top IT cell executive of the party said this order was expected with the increasing use of social media in political advertising. “We were ready for it and we wholeheartedly welcome the order.”

“We have a robust social media presence across the world. We have been very transparent about what we do on social media,” he said. 

As far as Election Expenditure Statement is considered, he said it includes only election-related spends, which means political parties can still freely post things and run campaigns all through the year. Only election-related content will come under the order’s purview.

Talking about their digital ad spends, the IT cell executive said the party spends a noteworthy amount on strengthening the party's presence on social media.

Asked which is the most effective social media platform to connect with the masses, he said, “I feel all social media platforms are different in nature. While all platforms help us disseminate our messages and agendas directly to the citizens, Facebook and Twitter are predominantly more effective.”

Anup Sharma, Independent Communications Consultant, who has worked with three chief ministers and two union ministers, said the EIC order doesn’t stop political leaders and parties from posting things on social media, nor does it count the number of posts one makes in a day. It will only include the monetary transaction made to promote things on social media, he pointed out. 

The EC says any political content in the form of messages, comments, photos and videos posted or uploaded on ‘blogs and self-accounts’ on the websites will not be treated as political advertisement and would not require pre-certification, even if they are posted by the parties or candidates.

All political parties are preparing at their own pace without expressing much on the EIC order. According to a political advertising agency, the order would lead to the political parties cutting down on their social media advertising expenditure.

The agency executive, who has worked closely with the BJP in the 2014 elections and the TMC in the 2021 assembly elections, said all political parties are answerable to EIC and thus cannot openly question the decision. However, they will have to revise their ad spends and reduce it to an acceptable level as per EIC’s policies.

Sharing insider details on social media plans of political parties, he said that the ruling BJP, which is looking at the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections as a semi-final to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, is planning to constitute media teams in 1,918 divisions. The election campaign will include social media outreach, highlighting the ‘accomplishments’ of the ‘Modi-Yogi partnership’.

This includes capacity-building workshops where the BJP’s social media workers are being trained to create short snackable-size videos with beneficiaries of welfare schemes and making them go viral, shared a source on condition of anonymity.

“The Congress, which is looking for an upswing, is training state-level social media cell functionaries, party workers and IT volunteers and rolling out a 'Janta ka reporter' social media campaign. The other two key traditional parties, the Samajwadi Party and BSP, have significantly increased their social media presence,” he said.

After the EIC order, these parties will have to rethink their strategies and social media budgets, he highlighted.

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