The national, provincial and local elections across Nepal in 2022 could be seen as an experiment in electioneering with new technology and media platforms. The 2022 elections were only the second elections after the adoption of the Constitution of Nepal in 2015 and the implementation of the federal system of governance. Information technology experts, production houses and research companies supported the political candidates’ and parties’ efforts to get, maintain, or increase their political influence.
For many lawmakers and political parties, this election was their road to Singha Durbar, the administrative and executive center, and the power and influence associated with governance. Elections have become increasingly expensive in recent years. Internet-based social media platforms, apps for data management and collection tools represent a new and added cost to campaign finance during the election. The use of advertisements, songs, memes, speeches and negative campaigns on technology platforms have also provided candidates with new opportunities to persuade voters. It is estimated that one of the national parties of Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist and Leninist (UML) party, spent Rs. 40 million (US $307,692) on their election publicity campaigns at the central level in the recent 2022 federal election, not including the individual candidate expenditures.
This paper examines the role of data entrepreneurs, research companies, tech companies, individuals, journalists and other political influencers during the 2022 federal and provincial elections in Nepal. The study is based on interviews with four political actors from the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist- Center) and Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP), and a review of media content.
Over the course of our team’s interviews and analysis of online content, it became clear that a diverse group of influencers and private firms engaged in political campaigns for different services at the candidate level. For a political candidate or political party, one company might be employed to support the development of both audio and visual content, while another may provide IT-related services for digital advertisements and a different company might be engaged for research purposes.
There is no single company or strategist that holds the overall campaign strategy for an entire Nepali political party. The party at the central level decides on the overall party messaging by producing an election manifesto and designing a national campaign strategy. However, individual candidates also create their own manifestos while campaigning and have their own campaign strategists, which plays a significant role in determining their campaign, rather than the political party at large.
However, because candidates are nominated only one month before the scheduled election, two strategists interviewed shared that they felt they had little time to prepare for the campaigns, thus limiting their ability to run research-based political campaigns. In the case of the 2022 general and provincial elections, the polling date was set for November 20th, though the final names of the candidates were not published until October 12th. This short period affects the chance to bring out evidence and data required to understand voter behavior and develop effective messaging strategies. It also impacts the outreach strategy, limiting the ability to effectively reach and influence voters' decisions.
The use of digital media in election campaigns has been essential since 2013. A report by Rabi Raj Baral identified that Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-UML) was the first political party to start a Facebook page in mid-May 2013, followed by Nepali Congress four months later. Although Baral's study found that Facebook was the most commonly used platform by political parties to reach their audiences, since the 2017 elections there has also been significant use of Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok. Some of the platforms provide official advertising or extended advertising services for a fee, as part of the paid tier. For instance, in the recent 2022 election the CPN UML chairperson was seen in a paid YouTube advertisement, which appeared as recommended viewing for those located in Nepal a week ahead of the election.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok were used during the 2022 elections across Nepal, particularly for advertising. In our research, Facebook emerged as the dominant platform for disseminating messages from political parties and candidates to the public. With 12.3 million users in early 2022, which is 41 percent of the adult population in Nepal, Facebook was a major platform for digital advertising services during the election.
According to data collected by our team from the Meta Ad Library, 9,941 ads on “issues, elections or politics” were posted between September 7th and December 23rd, 2022. The total cost of these ads was $165,193. Our analysis indicates that out of these ads, 7,213 were advertisements by candidates in the provincial and federal elections. At least 270 of the candidates spent over $100, while the remaining 636 spent less than $100. The total spending on Facebook advertising by political candidates during the election is estimated to be around $148,895.
The following data shows the amount of money spend on ads on Facebook:
|Party||USD ($)||Percent (%) of the total amount spent||Number of ads in the Library||Percent (%) of the total ads|
|Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP)||11,747||8||524||7|
|People's Socialist Party Nepal||10,860||7||741||10|
|CPN Unified Socialist||9,559||6||273||4|
|Rastria Swatantra Party||6,089||8||324||4|
The data also shows that the 270 candidates who spent over $100 spent a total of $117,095 (78%), which is more than two-thirds of the total spending, compared to those who spent less than $100. Independent candidates who participated in the election as a whole spent 33% of the total political advertising spending, followed by Nepali Congress candidates (20%), CPN UML candidates (14%), Rastriya Prajatantra Party (8%), People's Socialist Party (7%), CPN Unified Socialist and CPN Maoist (6%) each, and other parties (2%).
By comparison, the amount spent on Facebook advertising during the election was significantly higher than Nepal's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita income. The average spending on Facebook advertising per candidate post was US$164, which is higher than Nepal's estimated monthly per capita income of US$115 in 2022, or US$1,381 annually. The Facebook Ads spending trends show that the parties which spend the most money will do so at a much higher rate than parties with less.
Interestingly, the sums spent on the Facebook campaigns are correlated to the spending by candidates associated with political parties during the election. The spending report was also aligned with the election results, with Nepali Congress winning the most seats (57) in the parliamentary election of FPTP, followed by CPN UML with 44 seats. This may indicate that increased campaign spending is associated with increased investment in resources, which in turn may increase the likelihood of winning the election.
TikTok was another major platform used during the most recent election, allowing candidates to disseminate short videos. A 2022 survey showed that TikTok users in Nepal increased from three percent to over 56 percent in just two years. Though a smaller total user population in Nepal, a reported 417,900 in early 2022, Twitter was also a tool for many parties. Manish Jha, a member of parliament from Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) and a data entrepreneur who runs Facts Nepal, shared his experience regarding the relevance of social media use during the recent election. He stated that "in the election, the relation with Twitter was only 3 percent that reached out to direct voters, TikTok was 16 percent, and Facebook was 57 percent. Facebook was far more effective than Twitter."
Facebook groups are another popular method for political parties, influencers, and supporters to share their messages. For example, the Facebook group ‘Routine of Nepal Bandh,’ which has 3.7 million followers, publicly supported the winning mayoral candidate of Kathmandu in the May 2022 local election. The group was active in the initial phase of the parliamentary election. Though they promoted selected candidates leading up to the election, no posts were seen after October 18, 2022. During an interview with a strategist, it was claimed that the group was in the process of collaborating with the ruling party, Nepali Congress. However, according to the strategist, the collaboration came to an end after the opposition party utilized the brand's logo and a rival party’s symbol.
Posts in popular Facebook groups may serve as an income stream during the election campaign for the administrators of the Facebook group. Jyoti Katwal, a journalist from Surkhet who works for Kantipur Daily, spoke with one candidate in Surkhet who said that posting on Facebook cost him $460 during the election, which was provided to the Facebook group. However, representatives from the groups ‘Motteygang’ and ‘Trending Nepal’ claim that they don't charge for posts during the election and do it as per their social responsibility role.
Digital strategies were devised by political parties and candidates for social media as well, ranging from personalizing and targeting posts for a candidate's appeal and agenda to defaming opposing candidates and launching counterattacks.
The trend was generally to post candidates' agendas and appeals through audio and video content, including interviews with members of the public about development issues, political alliances, and who they support. Negative coverage of opposing parties or candidates was also posted to support the candidates’ agendas. One of the strategists who worked for CPN UML, who wished to remain anonymous, also revealed there is evidence of use of ‘fake news’ social media – or accounts spreading disinformation – to counter news stories and information that went against the party strategy.
Political parties also used rap songs to deliver messages that would appeal to younger voters. CPN UML and CPN Maoist Center produced rap songs during the election with themes including the party agenda and campaign messaging. A digital battle was even visible between the supporters of the different candidates and political parties. One example was on TikTok, in which a song from the singer Badri Pangeni and Priya Bhandari which supported CPN UML five years ago was then used by an opposition group with the same music but with lyrics discrediting CPN UML.
A strong digital strategy was helpful for newly formed parties such as RSP and played a crucial role during the election, according to Manish Jha. Jha, who worked with the party, pointed out that it was necessary for the RSP to understand the logic behind successfully using social media. Based on the internal findings, he pointed out three angles to understand on social media: determining the audience that is already following the party, identifying social media tools to influence other audiences, and pinpointing influencers who can magnify a message to new followers. In our interview, when discussing their strategy, Jha said, "we used Facebook first; second is TikTok. With respect to Twitter, more people were against us, so we did not care much."
Bishodip Lamichhane, who supported the social media campaign for Nepali Congress, acknowledges that Twitter's reach may be limited but claims that its impact is significant. According to Lamichhane, Twitter is particularly effective in "influencing the influencer," as its chain reaction is higher compared to other social media platforms.
Leading up to and during the 2022 election, there were concerns that disinformation could affect the integrity of the election results, discourage voting, or instill disinterest in the electoral system. Though these specific fears turned out to be unfounded, misinformation and disinformation were still present in the campaigning period. In light of the concerns, the Election Commission of Nepal (EC) office tried to proactively address concerns that could arise in the technological domain and affect electoral integrity at large. The EC developed policies to guide social media use during the election. The goal of these policies is to "make the use of social media safe, systematic, reliable, dignified, and accessible for electoral fairness."Though these specific fears turned out to be unfounded, misinformation and disinformation were still present in the campaigning period.
Chief Election Commissioner Dinesh Thapaliya informed the press that the EC entered into agreements with Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp in October 2022. Thapaliya said, "we are meeting with TikTok officials this week. If we encounter any hate speech or disinformation against any candidate or political party, we will flag it, and the companies will remove such content immediately... A trio of TikTok representatives from Singapore visited the EC office a month ago." According to Kiran Chapagain, who worked as Senior Policy Expert on Mis/Disinformation and Hate Speech in the Election Commission of Nepal during the local and federal elections, collaboration with tech companies can be helpful to regulate disinformation during the election, saying that "as a result of this effort, the overall integrity of the election was not called into question. Disinformation and hate speech did not pose threat to election security and affect the harmony during the election."
According to Umesh Shrestha, the editor of Nepalfactcheck.org, who monitored misinformation during the election, there were three trends in the context of the 2022 federal and provincial elections. First, he noted that Nepal's election was not marred by "deep" but "shallow" fake information, where videos were selectively edited to remove context. There was also a trend of faking online media brand names and misusing mastheads to disseminate fake information that popular media never published, which he described as "dangerous." There was also a flow of fake information announcing candidates winning the election before votes were even counted. For example, Nepalfactcheck.org fact-checked a screenshot that claimed Nepali Congress had issued a circular not to vote for CPN-Maoist candidates, which was widely circulated on social media. Journalists working in online media confirmed that no such news was published on their news portal.
The Center for Media Research - Nepal, with support from Meta, monitored online misinformation content during one month of the election campaign period and identified a significant amount of similar content. Social media was also widely used to demean or belittle opposing parties or candidates. Posts were shared to create unfavorable conditions for the opposing candidates and even to slander them by using unverified or misleading information.
The specific use of digital tools to conduct research and collect data in elections is new in Nepal, as past data collection was done in an informal and unstructured way. Previously, candidates would count people based on their caste, business, and personal relations to determine if they could win the election based on these demographic features. The new, digital trends involve developing a structured questionnaire, sending survey teams to collect public opinions, analyzing findings, and develop strategies based on the data. Data management companies utilize various techniques for survey data collection, including Computer Assisted Telephone Interviewing software and Common Application Programming Interface Software techniques for personal interviews.
While survey research to understand public perception on governance, political parties, and voting intentions was conducted in the past, its effectiveness was limited. For example, a 2007 survey revealed that only 38% of respondents disclosed which political party they intended to vote for in the upcoming Constituent Assembly (CA) election. Among them, Nepali Congress had 12.5%, CPN-Maoist had 11.2%, and UML had 10.7%; However, the actual election results showed CPN-Maoist winning with 30% of the popular vote, followed by Nepali Congress at 22% and UML at 20%. The majority of voters who refused to disclose their preference or were undecided accounted for 63% of the original survey, which was decisive in the election.
Similarly, a 2013 survey revealed that only 31% of respondents disclosed their party preference for the upcoming CA-II election, with Nepali Congress leading at 41%, UML at 30%, and UCPN-Maoist at 16%. Again, the majority of respondents who did not give a definite answer, accounting for 69%, were expected to be decisive voters. Both surveys highlighted a significant level of uncertainty among voters, indicating a significant gray area in Nepali politics.
Recent analysis suggests this is beginning to change. According to Jha’s calculations, there are 35 percent estimated swing voters in Nepal. He added that RSP was able to gain more votes based on the data they collected through survey reports and strategies built upon that data. The RSP strategy also included targeting the incoming generation – an estimated 2.7 million new voters. Today, election data analysts and consultants are being used by political parties and individual candidates for elections. One CPN-UML consultant, who wished to remain anonymous, said in an interview to the author that in the past, data-based analysis was disregarded by top leaders in the party. However, they now feel that the data is important, as they have seen that the resulting predictions were accurate. The consultant believed that “data tracking works.” It is understood that CPN-UML conducted pre-poll surveys of selected candidates, an exit poll, as well as planned for post-poll surveys.Data will undoubtedly play an important role in future elections in Nepal, as both new and old political parties are engaged in harvesting data and developing strategies based on it.
Based on informant interviews, social media and news articles observation, various research agencies used teams of researchers, security agencies, journalists, and lawyers to conduct surveys and provide data inputs to project election results. Arun Lamsal, the chief of Media Outlet Research Agency (MORA), projected the win of Renu Dahal, a mayoral candidate, in a local election in May 2022. Lamsal’s prediction was at least partially based on the information collected by a team of 20 researchers in an exit poll in a selected ward of Bharatpur Metropolitan City in central Nepal, which projected the victory of Dahal in the city. We understand from our interviews with anonymous parties that MORA was also engaged in pre-poll surveys during the federal and provincial elections for CPN UML. According to a news report, the Nepali Congress party also used supportive journalists and lawyers to conduct surveys. The report further highlights that the Congress party accepted the support of a private firm and members of sister organizations to collect data by forming a committee.
According to the online news portal Ukera.com, the three major political parties in Nepal – CPN-UML, Nepali Congress, and CPN Maoist Center – have been conducting surveys to understand voters' perceptions. The report claims that all three parties utilized supportive networks of journalists, lawyers, students, teachers and supporting party organizations. At least one party also received support from a private firm to collect data through a sub-committee led by a party leader. Similarly, CPN-UML and CPN Maoist Center were also engaged in data collection through their supporting party organizations, journalists and student branches. Bishowdeep Lamichhane, who conducted a survey in Kathmandu Constituency 3 for Nepali Congress candidates, reported that the data revealed Nepali Congress would win the election. He also revealed that about Rs. 800,000 (US $6,153) was spent during the survey process, with support from the candidates themselves. Political parties also use data from intelligence reports from security forces to their advantage in elections. The recent intelligence report's projection of who would lead in the FPTP federal election came close to marking the projection. A news media report also claimed that such reports were also used to understand the strong and weak candidates of the parties in government.
Even the news media was engaged in providing their assessment. Setopati.com published a report based on interviews with 150 voters to determine strong candidates and chances of winning the FPTP elections. The Press Council of Nepal has also found that some media were highly engaged in the production of news and analysis based on the survey compared to the last election. This trend of reporting results of polls and surveys with voters was considered to have damaged the image of the candidates who were assessed as weak candidates. Surendra Pandey, a candidate of CPN-UML who filed his candidacy from Chitwan Constituency-1, publicly stated that such reports in the news media affected the fairness of the election. Surendra Pandey issued the statement on November 6, 2022, stating that such news stories affected the "essence of fair election" and "influence[d] the public before the election and independent decision of the people." The statement further reads, "Before the people [make] a decision, if the decision is to be announced in the name of survey, analysis and news, then why is there a need to hold the elections?" If these polls can have a strong impact on voter preferences, much more care to policies governing data collection and its uses could be considered.
Data will undoubtedly play an important role in future elections in Nepal, as both new and old political parties are engaged in harvesting data and developing strategies based on it. The study by Baral highlighted in particular that political parties lacked proper management and transparency while using digital media. Our research has shown an interest in increasing their use of the technologies. While data analysis and strategists have allowed for predicting public perception towards which party would win and by how much, it is still in an experimental phase that involves social media influencers, data entrepreneurs, and political parties in attempting to manipulate election outcomes.
Questions about the misuse and abuse of such data in the electoral process might also become concerning in the near future. Strategists believe that the strategies developed based on data will not make a huge impact, estimating 5 to 10 percent, generally in cases of marginal vote differences. Yet, these tools and trends still raise questions about the use of such data to influence election results through electioneering tactics and strategies.
Read more about how YouTube (and Google) Ads work, in Glyn Thomas’ case study: Google Ads in Election Campaigns
Learn more about the Influence Industry Project’s Political Data Technologies Framework in Learning Module 2: Technologies Used by the Influence Industry
Tilak Prasad Pathak is Executive Director at the Center for Media Research-Nepal and was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow (2015–2016) at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C where he had conducted the research on Consolidating Democracy in Nepal through Transparent Campaign Finance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ujjwal Prajapati is the Senior Media Researcher and Program Manager at the Center for Media Research-Nepal, a think tank based in Kathmandu, Nepal.
If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.
The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.
First published: August 22, 2023
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