November 13, 2023 - Comments Off on Political Parties in Pakistan cling to targeted marketing on Facebook to attract voters.
Hamna Iqbal Baig
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) has emerged as the second most followed party with 3.9 million followers on Facebook after Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which enjoys a massive following of 8.6 million, followed by Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz with 3.6 million followers. Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulama-e-Islam Pakistan (JUI-F) are followed by more than 800,000 people on the platform.
Pakistan lifted the ban on the far-right party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), in November 2021. When you look up the party on Facebook, the platform displays a message that says, “Are you sure you want to continue? The term you searched for is sometimes associated with activities of Dangerous Individuals and Organizations, which isn't allowed on Facebook.” Although the party does not have an official Facebook page, we found numerous unofficial groups with users who align with the party’s ideology or support them. TLP’s Twitter account was suspended in November 2022. However, the party has a presence on YouTube with 48,600 followers.
Over the years, Meta (the parent company of Facebook) has emerged as the dominant online platform for political advertising due to its cost-effectiveness and powerful tools that enable messages to be precisely targeted at specific audiences. Political parties in Pakistan began utilising these tools for their general election campaigns in 2018.
For the recent local body elections and mayor elections in Karachi, Jamaat-e-Islami Karachi effectively used targeted marketing on Facebook. The party claims that paid ads were shown to at least 6 to 7 million people whose location was set as Karachi.
Meta's Ad Library report shows that since July 2022, a total of 25,138 ads related to social issues, elections, and politics were launched, and more than Rs 69,112,403 was spent on it by advertisers in Pakistan.
Following the 2016 US presidential election, which Donald Trump won, Meta introduced a significant overhaul in 2017 of its approach to paid political advertisements. This was an attempt to respond to concerns raised by US lawmakers threatening to regulate the social network due to the saturation of political ads during election campaigns.
This move included making all political ads visible to everyone and demanding that political advertisers disclose who pays for the advertisements to address transparency concerns associated with governments using Facebook for election interference.
Imran Ghazali, a digital media strategist, said that political campaigns often employ highly targeted strategies using various parameters and metrics on platforms like Facebook to refine their audience. “This includes targeting specific age groups, geographic locations, areas of interest, and keywords,” he said.
JI’s LG polls campaign ran over a 40-day period where 15 to 18 videos were boosted on Facebook and Instagram by JI Karachi’s official page. The last paid ad was run on 23 August 2022, as part of it.
JI Pakistan has run 67 ads on Facebook and Instagram since July 2022, spending at least Rs 384,947 on them. The cost of each ad is between Rs 100 to 25,000. The first paid ad was launched in November 2022.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) - PMLN started running paid political ads in October recently, both on Facebook and Instagram. They have run a total of 41 ads with a spending range that varies from Rs 100 to 20,000 per ad. The total amount spent on these ads is Rs 140,741.
Most of these ads from the PML-N focused on their leader, Nawaz Sharif's return to Pakistan, with the message that he would lead Pakistan out of its current crisis. The ads emphasised that Sharif was the key to solving issues like poverty and inflation and driving the country's progress. They conveyed the idea that Pakistan's prosperity and development would only be possible if Nawaz Sharif became the Prime Minister again.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) ran ten ads from 16 May to 19 October 2023. The total expenditure for these ads amounts to Rs 119,838. The PPP has spent between Rs 4,500 to 35,000 on each ad. Except for PPP, no party is currently running ‘active’ ads on Meta platforms as of writing time.
Interestingly, the Ad library had no data about PTI, but the party usually runs paid ads around election cycles. The last time they launched paid ads was in 2018 on their official page.
Political parties are now shifting to digital advertising for two main reasons. The younger demographic, particularly Generation Z, is less inclined towards traditional marketing strategies. Given that these individuals represent the forthcoming generation of voters, their preferences hold significant importance. In the upcoming elections, a major chunk of the electorate will consist of first-time young voters who use social media as their primary source of news.
Fatir Siddiqui, Chief Technical Officer at a digital agency called East River, pointed out that political campaigns on social media are now beginning to “expand beyond traditional issues of a Pakistani voter like food, clothing and shelter” but instead delve into “targeting sentiments”. An example of this is targeting individuals looking for a laptop via laptop scheme ads.
He said that this approach allows advertisers to precisely target specific audiences or groups. “For example, if someone is unemployed and searching for a job or looking to mortgage their house, they start searching online on platforms like Google and asking for recommendations on Facebook. Algorithms can understand these cues, and if a political party runs a campaign addressing these concerns, it can effectively convey a message that voting for a particular candidate will lead to solutions,” he said.
Initially, advertisers initiate an awareness campaign to reach a broader audience, employing Facebook's Filter Tools to target specific demographics. Then, the audience that engages with the content is exposed to a second ad, introducing the party's product or message. A third ad is then presented, encouraging support in the form of votes.
Haris Alam, JI Karachi’s social media manager, said that awareness or reach-based campaigns are commonly preferred by political parties but not narrow targeting because they may restrict results, especially for larger campaigns.
“During Karachi LG polls, targeting voters based on their location was challenging due to their varying addresses because many people live in rented houses and often shift. Therefore, we targeted college, university students and women based on their issues,” Alam said.
Alam said that simultaneously, the party also ran an organic campaign, which achieved better results as compared to their paid campaign, reaching 12 million people.
Women in Karachi were the focus of this campaign after their issues, such as the need for improved transportation options, safety from harassment, better access to education, and improved healthcare, were identified by JI. The party tailored its campaign’s content and launched paid ads aimed at these women, assuring them that if they supported the party or its candidates with their votes, their concerns would be addressed.
This trend of targeted political advertising on social media is being observed globally while it's still emerging in the context of Pakistan where political parties are beginning to utilise such strategies, focusing on specific issues primarily.
In the United States, political candidates have been at the forefront of this approach. They are using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to tailor their messages to voters based on a wide range of factors, including music preferences, sports interests, shopping behaviours, and TV viewing habits. This level of micro-targeting allows candidates to connect with voters on a more personal and relatable level, making their campaigns highly effective in reaching specific demographics and interests. In addition to their official social media team, numerous political parties utilise thousands of volunteers who actively disseminate their content across various social media groups.
PML-N’s social media lead, Atif Rauf, said that although the party’s content team based in Model Town Lahore comprises 40 people, he has 20,000 volunteers to help disseminate his party’s message on social media or share paid ads.
To reach women, JI’s volunteers specifically share advertisements in groups that cater to women in Pakistan, as well as TV drama-related groups and other relevant communities.
PTI also has a huge volunteer network which primarily disseminates their messages via Facebook groups. Despite other political parties’ growth on social media, PTI dominates massively all major social media platforms.
Experts have raised concerns that Facebook and WhatsApp groups established by political parties can contribute to the echo chamber effect by gathering like-minded supporters, filtering information to align with the party's agenda, reducing exposure to diverse opinions, fostering polarisation, and strengthening a sense of group identity. These dynamics can reinforce existing beliefs and hinder open discussion of alternative viewpoints.
A policy paper by UNDP and USAID, titled “How social media fuels echo chambering phenomenon in Moldova and how to address it?” pointed out that people tend to favour information that aligns with their preexisting beliefs while dismissing dissenting views. Social media platforms employ algorithms that tailor users' content based on their past interactions, creating virtual echo chambers where like-minded individuals repeatedly encounter content and opinions that reinforce their own. This algorithmic customisation filters out diverse perspectives, making users less likely to be exposed to contrasting viewpoints.
Consequently, these isolated digital spaces foster polarisation and manipulation, contributing to the deepening of political and social divisions. The echo chamber effect is not limited to a specific region; it's a global phenomenon present in both mature democracies and developing nations, profoundly impacting electoral processes and outcomes. The influence of social media, as seen in events like the Brexit referendum and the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, demonstrates the far-reaching consequences of echo chambering on democratic processes.
However, a recent study led by researchers from various universities and conducted in collaboration with Meta examined the impact of social media on political views. When investigating the existence of echo chambers on Facebook and their influence on political polarisation, the researchers found that Facebook users' feeds often consist of like-minded content, confirming the presence of echo chambers. However, when they attempted to reduce the bias in users' feeds, it had no significant impact on their political opinions. While this suggests that echo chambers may not be solely responsible for political polarisation, the researchers stress the need for more data transparency and further research on social media's impact.
Ghazali said it's not necessary that political ads will convince users to support a particular party. “If I'm not already affiliated with a specific political party, and I encounter their advertisements on my timeline, there's no guarantee that it will sway me to support them or adopt their viewpoints,” he said.
He said that while targeted marketing allows political parties to connect with undecided voters, the impact on users may vary, as their decision-making depends on various factors, including the content and messaging, along with a myriad of other factors.
While Meta has implemented various transparency measures aimed at political advertisements, concerns persist about potential misuse. The page that has spent the most on ads in Pakistan is "Karachi Stories." This page has run a total of 480 ads and describes itself as a media/news company based in Karachi. It has a substantial following with 75,000 likes and 115,000 followers on Facebook.
In 2023, Karachi Stories ran 81 ads with varying spending amounts ranging from Rs 100 to Rs 70,000 on each ad. Since July 2022, this advertiser has spent an estimated total of Rs 19,063,680 on ads related to social issues, elections, or politics in Pakistan.
The advertiser has allocated a significant portion of this spending to ads with disclaimers, while Rs 214,100 was spent on ads without disclaimers. Ads without disclaimers are usually removed by Facebook. The most recent ad from Karachi Stories was posted on 17 September 2023, and the first ad in this period was launched on 29 June 2022.
Based on our analysis of the page's content, it appears that their coverage is primarily centred around Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The politician who receives the most coverage on their page is Hafiz Naeem ur Rehman, who serves as JI Karachi Ameer. Their recent content is notably focused on expressing support for Palestinians during the recent escalations, a cause that Jamaat-e-Islami strongly advocates for. Interestingly, the page also features content related to JI's recent Karachi rally in support of Palestinians. Although the page doesn't explicitly state its affiliation or the political party it supports, it seems to promote JI’s activities in Karachi primarily.
Instances like this, where a page is promoting a political party under the guise of being a media/news company by concealing its true intent, are concerning. Such pages spend significant sums on advertising, potentially circumventing the system's transparency mechanisms. This means that there is a need for stricter enforcement to ensure information integrity in elections.
Amnesty International has raised significant concerns about the surveillance model employed by Big Tech companies such as Google and Facebook. These tech giants, with their vast array of services that dominate the internet, have built their business models on gathering and monetising extensive data about individuals. Advertisers are eager to pay for detailed insights and predictions about people, driving Google and Facebook to collect as much information as possible to create highly accurate user profiles. These profiles include not only basic information but also predictions about users' moods, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political opinions, and vulnerabilities. In essence, the more targeted an ad is to a user, the more profit these companies make.
The data collected goes far beyond what users may willingly provide, encompassing extensive details about their activities, searches, and interactions. This pervasive data-gathering enables these companies to make inferences about users' behaviour, hobbies, interests, relationships, and much more, all of which are used to target specific ads. Artificial intelligence systems aid in making these predictions, with Facebook, for instance, claiming to make trillions of predictions daily. Amnesty International argues that this intrusive surveillance poses a serious threat to individuals' privacy and their broader human rights.
In an environment where polarisation and the influence of social media on political discourse are significant concerns, it's crucial for both online platforms and government authorities, like the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), to address these challenges.
The absence of specific rules and spending limits for political campaigns on social media in the ECP's code of conduct is a notable gap in regulating modern political campaigns. Given the growing importance of social media in political messaging and influence, it's imperative for regulatory bodies to adapt and establish guidelines that ensure fairness, transparency, and information integrity in elections.
Governments and relevant authorities should work in collaboration with online platforms to create a framework that effectively oversees digital political advertising, sets clear spending limits, and enforces rules to prevent the misuse of these platforms for political purposes. It's important to address these issues for the integrity of the electoral process and ensure that voters have access to accurate and balanced information, helping to reduce polarisation and foster a healthier political discourse.
Addressing the impact that digital technology has on the electoral process.
Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Digital 50.50, Feminist e-magazine