In a blatant violation of its own rule of not favouring any political party or promoting its views, Facebook allowed several ghost and surrogate advertisers, including Reliance Jio-funded New Emerging World of Journalism Limited (NEWJ), to clandestinely spend crores on advertisements to promote the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and bolster its false narratives and target the Opposition during the 2019 General Elections and several Assembly polls, a year-long investigation by The Reporters’ Collective (TRC) ad.watch has revealed.
The first part of the investigation, done by Kumar Sambhav and Shreegireesh Jalihal of India-based non-profit media organisation TRC and Nayantara Ranganathan of ad.watch, a research project that studies political ads on social media, and carried by Al Jazeera, found that Facebook carried 718 NEWJ political ads costing Rs 52,00,000 over a period of 10 elections that were viewed more than 290 million times by its users between February 2019 and November 2020
NEWJ published surrogate political advertisements in favour of the 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 (API) by TRC and ad.watch.
FACEBOOK HELPS BJP DOUBLE ITS REACH
The second part of the investigation discovered that, at least, 23 ghost and surrogate advertisers paid more than Rs 5.8 crore to Facebook to run 34,884 ads either to promote the BJP or criticise/lampoon the Opposition that garnered a staggering 1.31 billion views in these 22 months across 10 elections, including in Delhi, Odisha, Maharashtra, Bihar and Haryana—there is no public record of their real identities and links with the ruling party.
These surrogate ads helped double the visibility of the BJP, Modi and other leaders and undercut the Opposition during election campaigns, according to TRC, which discovered that the BJP and its candidates officially spent a whopping Rs 10-plus crore on 26,291 Facebook advertisements that were viewed more than 1.36 billion times.
TRC and ad.watch found the shocking figures by mapping all the advertisers who had spent more than Rs 5,00,000 on political ads on Facebook between February 2019 and November 2020 using API, Meta’s ‘transparency’ tool that allows access to political advertising data across its platforms.
SURROGATE BJP SUPPORTERS ON FACEBOOK
The Election Commission of India (ECI) bars ghost or surrogate advertisements that favour a political candidate in 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.
Strangely, the ECI exempts digital platforms, which have a wider reach than print and electronic media, from this ban. This ECI ‘loophole’/exemption allows such advertisers, including defunct websites or portals, to spend lakhs on pro-BJP ads masquerading as news and analysis often with no details of ownership and ties to the party.
Out of the 23 advertisers, only six could be traced to the BJP, according to TRC—the rest led to dead websites or portals. The investigation found that myfirstvoteformodi.com, Nation with Namo, NationWithNamo.com and Bharat Ke Man ki Baat have listed the BJP headquarters in Delhi as their physical address on Facebook’s advertisement platform. But these four advertisers haven’t disclosed any connection with the BJP on Facebook pages or websites.
The other two advertisers, Bluecraft Digital and Sreenivasan Sreekkuttan, are indirectly connected to the BJP—the former’s directors and CEO had earlier worked for the party while the latter advertises on the page of right-wing social-media commentator Abhinav Khare, the former CEO of Asianet News Network. The parent company of Asianet, Jupiter Capital, is founded by BJP Rajya Sabha member and minister of state for electronics and IT Rajeev Chandrashekhar.
The first four advertisers spent around Rs 3 crore on more than 12,328 pro-BJP ads while the other two around Rs 27,00,000. TRC also found that another portal The-Pulse, which describes itself as a media/news company without disclosing ownership and funding details, spent about Rs 9,00,000 on such advertisements several of which praised the BJP and Modi urging Indians to vote.
Similarly, another Facebook page, Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat (meaning “The difference is visible, Shivaji’s rule is back”), without ownership details or association with any individual or organisation, spent more than Rs 22,00,000 on 1,748 pro-BJP advertisements primarily during the 2019 Maharashtra elections. The advertiser is listed as DFSP 2019 but its website shivshahiparat.com doesn’t open.
Interestingly, the funders listed on several such active Facebook pages lead to dead websites—ghargharraghubar.com (which spent more than Rs 9,00,000 on surrogate ads during Jharkhand elections), mainhoondilli.com and paltuaadmiparty.com (which paid Rs 18,00,000 during Delhi elections), phirekbaarimaandarsarkar.com (about Rs 28,00,000 in Haryana elections) and aghadibighadi.com (almost Rs 15,00,000 in Maharashtra elections).
Facebook claims to have acted against advertisers and removed their posts if they had misrepresented their identities and affiliations. However, by the time the ads on a few such pages like My First Vote for Modi, Bharat Ke Man ki Baat, Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat and Rashtriya Jungle Dal pages were disabled, they had already been watched more than 161.9 million, 145.7 million, 63.2 million and 15.3 million times, respectively.
Facebook’s 2018 policy to check the identity and address of an individual placing political ads on its platforms and the source of funding, announced after Russian disinformation campaigns during the 2016 presidential election, has failed in India with surrogate advertisers playing a prominent role in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and several Assembly polls.
This article first appeared on newsclick.in