‘Meta’ of Blatant BJP Promotion: Reliance-Funded Firm Boosts Party on Facebook
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A Facebook page has been brazenly assisting the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in winning general and state elections by targeting its political opponents and critics and helping it propagate its communal views by exploiting a loophole in the Election Commission of India (ECI) law and selective application of the social media giant’s rules, according to part one of an investigative series carried by Al Jazeera.
Importantly, the page, NEWJ—the acronym for New Emerging World of Journalism Limited—is a subsidiary of Jio Platforms Ltd, owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group, the first part of the investigation, done by Kumar Sambhav of The Reporters’ Collective (TRC) and Nayantara Ranganathan of ad.watch, reveals.
NEWJ published surrogate advertisements in favour of the ruling BJP and help it reach a wider audience, according to an analysis of the 536,070 political advertisements published on Facebook and Instagram between February 2019 and November 2020 and accessed through Facebook’s Ad Library Application Programming Interface by India-based non-profit media organisation TRC and ad.watch, a research project that studies political ads on social media.
Facebook, whose India policy head Ankhi Das had quit in October 2020 after The Wall Street Journal accused Facebook of being soft on BJP supporters who allegedly violated hate speech rules with anti-Muslim posts, allowed NEWJ to boost the BJP propaganda machine and give it an unfair advantage over its competitors.
Between February 2019 and November 2020, Facebook carried 718 political advertisements of NEWJ costing Rs 5.2 million over a period of 10 elections that were viewed more than 290 million times by Facebook users, according to the Ad Archive data.
NEWJ HELPS BJP, TARGETS OPPONENTS
For example, when the BJP fielded 2008 Malegaon blast accused Pragya Singh Thakur in the 2019 General Elections, the NEWJ carried an advertisement in the form of a news report with a wrong headline stating she has been “acquitted”. Though Thakur is facing trial for allegedly letting explosives planted in her motorcycle that killed six people in the Muslim-majority Malegaon town, Maharashtra, the page got 300,000 views.
NEWJ targeted then-Congress president Rahul Gandhi in April 2019 after he sarcastically referred to Jaish-e-Mohammed founder-chief Masood Azhar as “Azhar Ji” in a speech accusing the BJP of being “soft on terrorism” by releasing him from prison during power in 1990.
The advertisement, “When Rahul Called Masood Azhar ‘Ji’”—again in the form of a news report with the NEWJ logo—mocked Rahul on April 11 stripping his speech of that damning context from history. It garnered nearly 650,000 views in four days.
In April 2019, when Modi triggered nationalist sentiments in an election rally by warning Pakistan of India’s nuclear arsenal, then-Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted: “If India hasn’t kept nuclear bomb for Diwali, it’s obvious Pakistan’s not kept theirs for Eid either. Don’t know why PM Modi must stoop so low & reduce political discourse to this.”
The NEWJ swung into action with its advertisement stating: “Mehbooba’s love for Pakistan got exposed a second time. Mehbooba Mufti once again took Pakistan’s side”.
In November 2020, NEWJ carried an advertisement showing videos of Muslims attacking Hindu homes in Bangladesh to garner support for the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. “Minority Hindus have always been the victim of anger [of majority Muslims in Bangladesh].” the ad stated.
NO BJP LINKS ON RECORD
NEWJ has deep pockets and is linked with BJP. Its founder Shalabh Upadhyay’s father Umesh is the president and media director at Reliance Industries Ltd and is the former president of news at Reliance-owned Network18 Group. Shalabh’s uncle Satish is a BJP leader and former president of the party’s Delhi unit.
However, there is no public record of any financial transaction between the BJP and NEWJ, according to the review of its financials since its inception in January 2018 till March 2020 done by TRC and ad.watch. As per the balance sheets, NEWJ neither earned revenue from news operations nor was paid any fees for placing advertisements—it only spent the money invested by Reliance Group on advertisements.
EXPLOITATION OF ECI LOOPHOLE
It is a crime to publish surrogate or ghost advertisements that favour a political candidate in the print and electronic media. Even a payment by a third party with no links to a candidate on such ads is considered as the contestant’s spending—including paid promotions camouflaged as news.
The ECI exempts digital platforms, which have a wider reach than the print and electronic media, from this ban. Though on October 25, 2013, the ECI said that social media was part of the electronic media, it was still considering how to deal with content posted by people other than the candidates and their parties.
TRC’s Right to Information query sent to the ECI revealed that the Internet and Mobile Association of India’s (IAMAI) 2019 ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics’ for social media platforms during campaigning did not specifically mention surrogate ads. This loophole allowed Facebook to promote Modi and the BJP while undercutting their political opponents before elections. In fact, documents leaked by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen showed how the company had pushed the Internet and Mobile Association of India to lobby with the ECI to not impose strict regulations on social media platforms during parliamentary elections.
While the ECI did not respond to TRC’s queries, Facebook’s parent organisation Meta claimed to be following the code of ethics. “This builds on the ongoing dialogue we’ve had with the commission, as well as with the campaigns and political parties,” it said in an email but did not address the allegations of lobbying with the ECI.
SELECTIVE CRACKDOWN BY FACEBOOK
In an interview with The Indian Express in April 2019, Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, said, “We’re looking here for pages, groups that are designed to look independent but are actually linked to an organisation or political party and trying to conceal or hide this link,” adding that around 700 pages promoting political content had been removed.
However, Facebook targeted surrogate ads mostly promoting Congress candidates, not the BJP, the investigation revealed, while allowing NEWJ to continue. Its ‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour’ removed 687 pages and accounts that promoted the Congress but only one pro-BJP page and 14 accounts owned by an IT firm called Silver Touch.
Within a few weeks of this so-called crackdown, “Facebook internally declared a global freeze on actions against Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour originating from within a country”, Sophie Zhang, former Facebook employee who later turned whistle-blower, told TRC.
However, Meta denied freezing the crackdown in the mail: “Our enforcement against Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour was never stopped and continues even after the April 2019 elections.”
Meta also refuted the allegations of favouring any political party. “We apply our policies uniformly without regard to anyone’s political positions or party affiliations. The decisions around integrity work or content escalations cannot and are not made unilaterally by just one person; rather, they are inclusive of different views from around the company, a process that is critical to making sure we consider, understand and account for both local and global contexts.”
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