Mumbai: Facebook is being criticised for partisan regulation of political content in India, but the world’s largest social networking company has been protecting content linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for more than a year, according to Article 14 investigations.
New evidence reveals how Facebook failed to act against pages—some of them among the company’s largest spenders on advertisements—promoting the BJP’s agenda without disclosing their party affiliations, as required by Facebook’s own rules, which term such conduct “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
Just before last year’s general elections to the Lok Sabha, Facebook took down 702 pages and users: 687 of these were linked to the Congress, punished for not disclosing their links to the party, according to information released by the company last year. But Facebook took no comparable action against those with undisclosed affiliations with the BJP.
If Facebook’s handling of the BJP with kid gloves is subtle, more visible is its well-entrenched, commercially beneficial relationship with the Narendra Modi government in India, the company’s biggest market with 340 million users. Facebook has programming collaborations with at least eight different government ministries and departments.
These collaborations are varied, from allowing Facebook to train thousands of teachers and students in its augmented reality software to imparting digital literacy to tribal students on Facebook-owned platforms. These partnerships helped Facebook tap newer audiences, expand its user base and gain more advertisers, according to experts.
Despite numerous calls, messages and two emails over three days, Facebook India declined to comment. The BJP’s Information Technology (IT) and social media head Amit Malviya dismissed questions about Facebook’s apparent bias towards his party as “ludicrous” and refused to respond to specific questions on the issue.
The new evidence comes days after the Wall Street Journal, a US newspaper, reported on 14 August that Facebook refused to act against hate speech on its platform by BJP members, in an apparent bid to protect its commercial interests.
The BJP has rubbished the newspaper’s report, while Congress leader Manish Tewari has written to Facebook seeking a clarification. Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, also chairperson of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, has summoned Facebook representatives on 2 September for an explanation.
Selective Targeting: Pro-Congress Pages Taken Down
The Wall Street Journal detailed events within Facebook in March this year, when the company reportedly found evidence of hate speech by BJP's legislator in Telangana, T Raja Singh. Quoting company insiders, the report revealed that Facebook India’s Public Policy Director Ankhi Das warned against any action on these posts because it could hurt the company’s commercial interests in the country.
Company executives reportedly acquiesced to her warning, and no action was taken against Singh.
This selective moderating of content was evident as far back as April 2019, when the company declared it had taken down 702 pages and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. This, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher explained, was “when groups of pages or people work together to mislead others on who they are or what they are doing”.
Gleicher, in an interview to the Indian Express on 2 April, said that Facebook was “looking for pages, groups that are designed to look independent but are actually linked to an organisation or political party and are trying to conceal the link".
Of these 702 pages and accounts, Facebook found 687 had links to individuals associated with the Congress party’s information technology cell, but found none with links to the BJP. The company note said the remaining 15 Facebook pages and users had links to an Ahmedabad-based IT company called Silver Touch, whose clients, according to its website, include the government of India and the government of Gujarat.
In an interview to Reuters the same day, Facebook linked Silver Touch to the NaMo app, the official mobile application of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, after BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya denied any links between Silver Touch and the NaMo App, Facebook, in an updated statement, made an about-turn and said it had “seen no evidence to date of Silver Touch being associated with the NaMo App on our platform”.
These actions and the reasoning behind them are “not convincing”, said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, a nonprofit fact-checking website. Pointing to Facebook’s attempt at identifying individuals linked with the Congress IT cell, Sinha said, “How does Facebook determine who is ‘associated’ with these parties and who is not? BJP has a vast network of supporters and they're operating thousands of pages which do not highlight their link with the party, and these pages are still operational.”
Sinha said Facebook's lack of transparency in regulating content is to be blamed for the confusion. “The rules that Facebook makes are so opaque that it's difficult to make a judgement," he said. "There is no fixed criteria on what pages stay and what gets taken down.”
Sinha’s words ring especially true because Facebook, having acted against Congress-linked pages, ignored a number of BJP-linked pages that boast millions of followers. Many of these pages are among the platform’s biggest political advertisers.
Facebook Pages Linked To The BJP
The BJP’s presence on the social media platform is vast. Data show that Modi’s personal Facebook page, with 45 million followers, has the largest Facebook following for a world leader. The official BJP page on Facebook, with over 16 million followers, is Facebook’s biggest ad spender in India. Data from FB show the party has spent over Rs 4.60 crore in ads on FB platforms since February last year.
But numerous other pages drum up support for Modi and the party, without revealing any official links with either.
Article14’s investigations found at least five pages linked directly to the BJP, even though the pages make no mention of it, in violation of Facebook’s rules. Two of them misleadingly label themselves as “News and Media websites” and continue to evade action from Facebook.
Three of these five pages—Nation With Namo, My First Vote for Modi and Bharat Ke Mann ki Baat—feature among Facebook’s top 10 India advertising spenders. Together, these three account for Rs 4.83 crore of the nearly Rs 16 crore spent by Facebook’s top 10 political advertisers since February 2019, or more than a quarter, company data show.
In submissions to Facebook, all three admitted to operating from the same address—6-A, Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, New Delhi. This is the registered address of the BJP’s national headquarters.
For instance, ‘Bharat Ke Mann ki Baat,’ a page with over 300,000 followers that uploads a mix of posts with fulsome praise for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi while launching communally charged tirades at opponents—accusing West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee of trying to “make a New Pakistan out of Bengal,” calling her “Mamata Bano” and alleging that the state was a hub for the ISIS—was created in January last year. It has spent more than Rs 2.24 crore in over 3,800 ads on Facebook. In advertiser details, the page mentions the address of the advertiser as the BJP’s headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg.
Another page with over 1.30 million followers, ‘Nation With NaMo’ tags itself as a ‘News and Media website’. It describes itself as a “pan-India citizen engagement platform” to promote Modi’s “New India movement”. Since February last year, this page has spent more than Rs 1.28 crore on pushing over 4,100 ads on Facebook. Like Bharat Ke Mann ki Baat, Nation With NaMo also lists the BJP’s national headquarters as its address. The page posts a mix of photos, videos and memes, most of them effusive in their praise for the Modi government.
The page, ‘My First Vote For Modi’, similarly mounted a vigorous campaign for the prime minister’s re-election campaign in 2019. Since February 2019, it has spent Rs 1.38 crore on Facebook ads. This page describes itself as a “pan-India platform to engage and mobilise the youth” and does not show any direct links to the BJP on its home page. Again, its registered address in Facebook’s advertising spend report shows that it operates from the BJP’s headquarters.
Facebook’s inability to make the connection between such pages that are registered at the BJP’s headquarters and the party also extends to pages run by the BJP’s office-bearers and members.
A Facebook page titled ‘The Fearless Indian’ has over 600,000 followers and calls itself a ‘News and Media website,’ while aggressively promoting Modi and his government’s policies.
A day after the bhoomipujan for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the page likened Modi to the Hindu deity Hanuman; more recently, after a riot in the city of Bengaluru, it published a sketch depicting a bearded man with a skullcap setting the city on fire.
The Fearless Indian page is run by Devang Dave, the IT cell convenor of the BJP unit in Maharashtra, according to his profile on Facebook. Saket Gokhale, an activist, on 23 July alleged that Dave’s company had been awarded a lucrative contract by the Maharashtra Chief Electoral Officer to jointly organise a digital drive for voter awareness and registration in the state when the BJP was in power in Maharashtra. The Election Commission has ordered a probe into the award of this contract and into whether any data was passed on to Dave’s company.
Despite being run by a BJP office bearer, ‘The Fearless Indian’ Facebook page has faced no action. Dave confirmed that he is associated with the page and said it is run by his team. The page focuses on news and is run independently by professionals, he told Article14.
“The party has no say in it,” Dave claimed. “In fact, we are happy to publish content that is critical of the government if it meets our standards.” That there are no such posts is coincidence, he says. “Maybe the writers we are getting are pro-BJP,” said Dave. “That is what the majority of our country is today, anyway.”
Similarly, the page ‘I Support Narendra Modi’ has over 16 million followers, and describes itself as a Modi ‘fan page’, but does not mention any formal ties with the BJP. Yet, the page’s coordinator, Vikas Pandey, admits on his Twitter profile that he is a “BJP Volunteer.” The page ran Facebook ads worth more than Rs 1.30 lakh since February 2019.
Sinha of Alt News said that Facebook has been soft against the BJP on previous occasions too. “Facebook might have policies but we have seen even in the past that it does not implement these policies, especially those around hate speech, when it comes to pages run by the BJP or are sympathetic to the BJP,” he said.
Malviya, chief of the BJP’s IT wing, denied any partisan treatment by Facebook, and claimed that the social networking platform had, in fact, taken down “over 700 pages, most of them sympathetic to a nationalist narrative.”
Asked to corroborate this claim, Malviya declined to respond. “This trend of targeting large pages and groups run by volunteers and special interest groups, with communities running in millions, hasn’t stopped since (last year’s action),” said Malviya. “No reasons are assigned and appeals aren’t entertained either.”
Facebook’s Gains From Partnerships With Modi Government
Besides the advertising revenue earned from such pages, the San Francisco-based social media giant may owe its unwillingness to act against BJP-linked content that is in violation of its norms to other commercial reasons.
Facebook’s reach within the Modi government is extensive. From partnering with the Home Ministry for disaster response to building curriculum for the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Facebook’s presence straddles ministries and departments. Facebook also tied up with the Election Commission of India in 2017 to encourage voter awareness and register new voters ahead of polls in states including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand.
For instance, in early May 2020, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs launched an exclusive tie-up with Facebook for a new programme, Going Online As Leaders, which will train 5,000 tribal youth in digital literacy by connecting them with successful professionals across different fields who will play mentors. The programme would be delivered entirely through Facebook and its wholly owned mobile application, WhatsApp. Such a partnership would assure the social media company of new audiences, as Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda himself suggested at the launch of the event.
“He called upon tribal youths to use their mobile phone as a tool to achieve their goals in life. He said that they should link Social Media like Facebook with the aims of their lives,” a government press release said about Munda’s address at a webinar to “sensitise” members of Parliament representing constituencies reserved for members of the Scheduled Tribes.
In 2015, the Ministry of Women and Child Development launched a ‘100Women’ initiative in partnership with Facebook, through which people were asked to nominate “women who have made a difference to the community”. The nominations were to be made exclusively via Facebook and anyone wishing to participate in the process would need a Facebook account, after which they would have to post a video on the Ministry’s Facebook page, an ANI report from 14 July 2015 said, quoting then minister Maneka Gandhi.
In July 2020, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) signed a partnership with Facebook under which the social media company will build curriculum on “digital safety and online well-being” and also train 10,000 teachers and 30,000 students to use Facebook’s Augmented Reality software, Spark AR Studio. This comes two years after the National Commission For Women in 2018 tied up with Facebook to train 60,000 young women and girls across universities in India on digital literacy and promoting safe Internet usage.
In April 2020, Tech Crunch reported that Facebook had “partnerships” with 11 state governments for its WhatsApp-based coronavirus helpline and with nine state governments for its Facebook Messenger-based coronavirus chatbot.
Article14 found instances of ministers addressing sessions exclusively on Facebook, benefitting only users of the platforms.
Sinha of Alt News said such partnerships were “problematic” because they got Facebook more users, and, eventually, profits.
“Facebook depends on virality, so that its advertisers get more eyeballs,” said Sinha. “Such opportunities directly or indirectly lead to the platform being more visible, thus gaining more revenue, directly or otherwise.”
As a result, these partnerships ensure that the government and the party remain insulated from any regulation by Facebook, said Sinha, explaining that this was similar to governments choking media organisations by withholding advertising revenue from the government or government companies
“The fear is that if the media organisation’s reporting is critical of the government, it could lose its revenue,” said Sinha. “The same is the case with Facebook and its partnerships with the government.”
National Coordinator of Digital Communications and Social Media for the Congress Party, Gaurav Pandhi, said such an arrangement suggested a quid-pro-quo, where Facebook and the Modi government favour each other. “Such partnerships mean that the government is actively campaigning for one private entity, Facebook, and is encouraging people to join the social media platform,” he said.
Pandhi pointed to India’s position as Facebook’s biggest market. “The reason why Facebook India is doing so well is because the government is promoting it. Since it prospers from this arrangement,” said Pandhi. “Facebook will obviously not take action against the government.”
In response to recent criticism, Facebook India’s Vice-President and Managing Director Ajit Mohan has said the company is committed to bipartisanship and to acting against hate and bigotry on its platform. In the light of fresh evidence to the contrary, the allegations of bias are only likely to deepen.
(Kunal Purohit is an independent journalist, based out of Mumbai)