Surrogate advertisements promoting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party have flourished on Facebook [File: Stephen Lam/Reuters]

New Delhi, India – In the 2019 parliamentary elections, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fielded a Hindu ascetic accused of “terrorism”. As soon as the BJP picked Pragya Singh Thakur as its candidate for a seat in the lower house of Parliament, Facebook showed an advertisement that mimicked the style of a news report but carried a false claim in the headline.

The advertisement wrongly proclaimed that Thakur had been “acquitted” of the charge of making available her motorcycle to plant explosives that killed six people in the Muslim-majority Malegaon town in the western state of Maharashtra. It got 300,000 views in a day. Thakur, who is still facing trial, won the election while out on bail for medical treatment.

A month before voting began on April 11, Facebook showed an advertisement lampooning opposition party Indian National Congress’s then-president Rahul Gandhi. In a speech accusing the BJP of being “soft on terrorism”, Gandhi said the last time the BJP was in power in the late 1990s, it released from prison Masood Azhar, the head of a Pakistan-based armed group that India has declared a “terrorist outfit”. Gandhi sarcastically referred to Azhar as “Azhar ji”, an honorific in Hindi.

The advertisement that ran, however, had stripped Gandhi’s speech of that damning context from history. Instead, dressed up as a news report with a logo called NEWJ, it meme-fied Gandhi and ran with a headline “When Rahul Called Masood Azhar ‘Ji’” and gathered roughly 650,000 views in four days.

A Facebook page called NEWJ paid for both the advertisements, as per Facebook’s Ad Library, a graphical interface to browse advertisements placed across Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company. NEWJ, the acronym for New Emerging World of Journalism Limited, is a subsidiary of Jio Platforms Ltd, India’s largest telecom and internet conglomerate which is owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group.

Loopholes in how the Election Commission of India (ECI) applies the law and a selective application of Facebook’s rules and processes allowed India’s largest conglomerate to pump in millions of rupees to place and promote these surrogate advertisements to boost the reach and popularity of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP in the lead up to the 2019 parliamentary elections and nine state elections. Surrogate advertisements promote a political candidate but are not directly funded or authorised by that candidate.

When Facebook did crack down on surrogate advertisements, ostensibly to ensure transparency and accountability, it did so by mostly targeting advertisers promoting BJP’s main opponent, Congress, but allowed pages like NEWJ to continue.

Over the past year, The Reporters’ Collective (TRC), a non-profit media organisation based in India, and, a research project studying political ads on social media, analysed data of all the 536,070 political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 through November 2020 to assess the influence of Facebook’s political advertising policies on elections in the country. They accessed the data through Facebook’s Ad Library Application Programming Interface (API) and found that in those 22 months, which included the high-octane 2019 national election and nine state elections, Facebook’s advertising platform systematically undercut the political competition in the world’s largest electoral democracy, giving an unfair advantage to the BJP over its competitors.

In the first part of the series today, we reveal how Facebook allowed a firm funded by Reliance to work the legal loophole to publish surrogate advertisements in favour of the BJP and help it reach a wider audience. The subsequent parts will show the scale and effect of the BJP’s surrogate advertising ecosystem and how even Facebook’s algorithms – instructions and rules coded in software – provide an upper hand to the BJP over its competitors during elections.

NEWJ positions itself as a start-up catering “news content” to people in villages and small towns exclusively through social media. In reality, the company buys advertisement space on Facebook and Instagram to publish videos many of which are actually political promotions but are dressed as news stories. The advertisements have one underlying theme – to promote the BJP, including by fuelling misinformation, inciting anti-Muslim sentiments and denigrating opposition parties.

Unlike posts created by Facebook users or pages, which are then typically delivered to the timelines of friends and followers, advertisements are paid posts shown by Facebook to users beyond such expected reach. Advertisers can target users based on several data points such as users’ location, demographics and behaviours that Facebook monitors and collects data on. Claiming transparency ahead of the elections, Facebook started tagging and displaying “all ads related to politics” in India in the Ad Library in February 2019.

The Ad Library shows that the NEWJ page published roughly 170 political advertisements over the three months leading up to the parliamentary elections. Most either glorified BJP leaders, projected voters’ support for Modi, stoked nationalistic and religious sentiments — the poll planks of the BJP – or mocked opposition leaders and the rallies they held.

These advertisements were carefully spread out among a relentless stream of non-political, informational videos about India’s history and culture or viral videos – such as a disabled woman writing a university exam with her foot – that NEWJ posts to capture eyeballs for its social media channels.

The surrogate advertiser

NEWJ founder Shalabh Upadhyay has close family ties with both Reliance and the BJP. His father Umesh Upadhyay is president and media director at Reliance Industries Ltd and previously worked as president of news at Reliance-owned Network-18 group that runs a host of news channels in India. His uncle Satish Upadhyay is a BJP leader and former president of the party’s Delhi unit.

NEWJ, however, does not declare any formal link with the BJP and there is no public record of the party paying NEWJ for creating or publishing political advertisements. From its inception in January 2018 until March 2020, the period for which we reviewed NEWJ’s financials, it earned no revenue from news operations or even as fees for placing advertisements. Instead, it spent money invested by Reliance Group on advertisements, the company balance sheets show.

Publishing surrogate or ghost advertisements that favour a political candidate but are not directly funded or authorised by that candidate is a crime under Indian law. The law aims to hold political parties accountable for all the information they put out and prohibit use of unknown sources of money to pay for advertisements for election campaigns.

But the ECI does not extend this ban to digital platforms, like Facebook, despite being aware of the loophole for years, as a Right to Information (RTI) application by TRC shows.

For that matter, Facebook’s parent Meta too did not implement this rule, allowing Reliance-funded NEWJ to quietly promote BJP and its candidates on Facebook and Instagram during the elections.

This apart, documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen recently showed that Facebook had pushed industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to lobby with the ECI to not impose stiff regulations on social media platforms during parliamentary elections.

Although Facebook claims to have acted against surrogate advertisers before the parliamentary elections, most of its targets were the advertisers that promoted Congress. In a much-publicised crackdown on what it called “Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour”, an action it took on its platform in several countries, it removed 687 pages and accounts that it said promoted the Congress party but concealed their association with it. Only one page and 14 accounts that promoted the BJP were removed. Those were owned and operated by an IT firm called Silver Touch which had not formally declared its link with the BJP.

In an interview then, 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.” He gave examples of accounts that pretended to be news pages but were actually being run by political parties.

“But within a few weeks of this announcement, 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 whistleblower, told TRC.

In other words, after the initial takedown that mostly targeted Congress-linked pages, similar action was not taken against any party’s advertisers during or after the 2019 elections.

In response to a list of detailed questions over email, including on political advertisements by NEWJ, Meta said: “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.”

It added, “Our enforcement against Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour was never stopped and continues even after the April 2019 elections.” Meta’s full response can be read here (PDF).

The BJP benefitted as NEWJ pages continued to promote the party and its leaders through posts and advertisements in several state elections without facing any scrutiny.

From February 2019 through November 2020, NEWJ placed 718 political advertisements over a period of 22 months and 10 elections, that collectively were viewed more than 290 million times by Facebook users, according to the Ad Archive data. The company spent 5.2 million rupees ($67,899) on these advertisements.

Many of these advertisements lit the fuse of anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments, Tommy-gunned BJP’s opponents and critics, and eulogised Modi’s government. Sample these.

In April 2019 Modi evoked “nationalist” sentiments in an election rally by warning Pakistan of India’s nuclear power. “India has stopped the policy of getting scared of Pakistan’s threats. Every other day they used to say ‘we have nuclear button, we have nuclear button’. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali [a major Hindu festival in which Indians burst fireworks]?” Modi had said.

Reacting to this, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Modi’s opponent in the state, 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.”

Using Mufti’s tweet without the context of Modi’s speech, a NEWJ advertisement portrayed her as someone who “shills for Pakistan”. “Mehbooba’s love for Pakistan got exposed a second time. Mehbooba Mufti once again took Pakistan’s side,” the advertisement said.

NEWJ advertisements sought to fire up Hindu religious sentiments too, a core BJP tenet. In May 2019, “#BoycottAmazon” was trending on Twitter after Amazon, the global online retail giant and competitor of Reliance in retail space in India, was found selling products with Hindu gods’ images on them. NEWJ was quick to run an advertisement that said: “India shows its power to Amazon. People’s anger has come out. Coming up with products of gods and goddesses, turned costly.”

Post the 2019 national elections, NEWJ continued with stories that applauded government policies and BJP leaders, or frightening ones about a new threat.

In December 2019, when the BJP-led federal government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to amend the related law to offer amnesty to refugees, barring Muslims, from neighbouring countries, waves of protests lashed across the country. But in November 2020, NEWJ ran an advertisement on Facebook that showed videos of Muslims attacking Hindu homes in Bangladesh, over rumours about an alleged Facebook post slandering Islam, to tell the protesters in India why they must support the new citizenship law, saying, “minority Hindus have always been the victim of anger [of majority Muslims in Bangladesh]”.

When singer Rihanna and other global celebrities spoke up for Indian farmers who were protesting against Modi’s government’s farm laws, NEWJ ran an advertisement asking why the “celebs” spoke on the “instigated” farm protests but were quiet when “India is attacked”.

BJP’s chief spokesman Anil Baluni and IT and social media head Amit Malviya did not respond to TRC’s questions despite repeated reminders.

Systematic investment

Shalabh Upadhyay and his sister Deeksha set up NEWJ as a private limited company with a paid-up capital of 100,000 rupees ($1,306) in January 2018. In mid-November, Reliance Group company Reliance Industrial Investment and Holdings Limited (RIIHL) took over NEWJ with a 75 percent equity stake. It then lent the company 84 million rupees ($1.1m) via convertible debentures.

Flush with cash, NEWJ did more of the same work–producing and publishing videos on social media, often as advertisements that promoted the BJP, financial records and NEWJ production on Facebook and YouTube show. NEWJ ended the financial year in March 2019 with revenues of a paltry 3.37 million rupees ($44,003) on which it netted a net loss of 22.06 million rupees ($288,046).

Next year, Reliance pumped in another 125 million rupees ($1.63m) again through debentures in NEWJ. For the financial year ending March 2020, NEWJ did not record any revenues but did have advertising promotional expenses of 27.3 million rupees ($356,467), up from 6.06 million rupees ($79,128) the previous year. At the time, the RIIHL stake was taken over by another Reliance Group company, Jio Platforms Ltd, the country’s largest telecom operator which earned revenue of 902.9 billion rupees ($12.07bn) in the financial year ending March 2021.

Six days before Jio took it over, NEWJ amended its “Articles of Association” to give its “investor”, in this case Jio, control over what content NEWJ produces, aggregates or disseminates. Jio lent another 84.96 million rupees ($1.12m) to NEWJ at a negligible 0.0001 percent annual interest rate in the financial year ending March 2021. Jio counts Facebook as an investor.

NEWJ says its short-form videos, which it publishes “exclusively on social media”, had been watched for a total of 4 billion minutes and have an aggregated reach of more than 22 billion – “thrice the population of the world”.

RIIHL and Jio did not respond to TRC’s queries on NEWJ’s advertisements.

In his response to TRC, NEWJ chief executive Shalabh Upadhyay said, “As one of the largest social-first news publishers, NEWJ is dedicated to delivering transparent and impactful independent journalism … To this end, we strictly abide by Meta’s community guidelines and advertising policies while following the recommended authorisation processes to ensure integrity, transparency and quality of our reportage.”

He did not respond to specific questions about advertisements placed by NEWJ, which used pro-BJP disinformation or fired up anti-Muslim sentiments.

ECI and Facebook shut eyes

To insulate elections from money power, Indian election laws cap the money a candidate can spend on campaigns. If a third party, with no declared association with the candidate, pays for that candidate’s advertisements in print and electronic media, the ECI considers it as the candidate’s spending. The ECI also investigates instances where paid promotions are camouflaged as news in the traditional media. If found that a piece of “news” was indeed paid for to promote a candidate, the ECI adds the actual or notional expenditure on the advertisement to the candidate’s election expenses.

These rules, however, are not applied to the advertisements placed on social media.

In 2013, the ECI made it mandatory for all political parties, candidates and their authorised agents to get social media advertisements pre-certified from the commission and report the expenditure on them. But it kept the advertisements placed by third parties, entities not officially linked to the candidates, out of this regulation, leaving the window open for surrogate advertisements.

In its October 25, 2013 order, the ECI said social media was part of the electronic media and the advertisements would be regulated in a similar fashion. But it added that it was still considering how to deal with content posted by people other than the candidates and their parties “in so far as they relate to, or can be reasonably connected with, the election campaigning of political parties and candidates”.

In response to the TRC’s Right to Information (RTI) query earlier this year to ascertain the outcome of these consultations, the ECI cited the “Voluntary Code of Ethics” that industry body the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) had drafted in March 2019 for social media platforms “to maintain the integrity of the electoral process”. The Voluntary Code of Ethics does not have any specific recommendation on surrogate advertisements, a loophole that was well exploited in time for the parliamentary and nine state elections.

Meta told TRC that it follows the Voluntary Code of Ethics for elections. “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. It did not address the allegations of lobbying with the ECI.

The ECI did not respond to TRC’s queries.

After it faced backlash in the United States for allegedly influencing elections, Facebook rolled out a policy in 2018 to verify the identity and address of people who place political advertisements. It now asks all such advertisers to declare who is paying for the advertisements and displays the details of the funding entity in the Ad Library. Facebook, however, does not verify whether the identity disclosures by the advertiser is truthful. Nor does it check if it might be funding those advertisements on behalf of political parties or their candidates.

Facebook exempts all advertisements placed by “qualified” news organisations from verification or funding disclosures. It does not consider NEWJ to be an independent news organisation.

In response to TRC’s queries, Shalabh Upadhyay equated NEWJ with news organisations such as Al Jazeera.

“We utilise the Meta Ad Library to amplify our content across genres which showcases high engagement with our audiences – a standard industry practice employed by other digital publishers such as NowThis, Brut, Vice and AJ+ as well to name a few. By doing so we are able to serve our users while reaching out to greater audiences with factual news that aligns with their interests,” he said. Upadhayay’s full response can be read here (NEWJ response).

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