A Wall Street Journal report on Sunday, quoting sources, revealed how “Facebook declined to act after discovering that the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) was circumventing its political ad transparency requirements.” The rules, the report added, “required advertisers to verify identities and disclose them to users.”
It also said that in “addition to buying Facebook ads in its own name, the BJP was also found to have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars through newly created organizations that didn’t disclose the party’s role.”
These ads, multiple highly placed sources told The Economic Times, would concern an official affiliate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which ran about six to eight pages during the 2019 elections, while spending over Rs 4.9 crore amount till date. Some of these pages were spending on ads as recent as April 2020.
These pages included ones floated by the affiliate like “Bharat ki Mann Ki Baat”, “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar”, “My First Vote for Modi”, “Nation with Namo”, and “Modi11”, sources confirmed to ET.
Several of these ads have now been taken down, with a disclaimer by Facebook saying, “We took down this ad after it started running because the disclaimer doesn’t follow our Advertising Policies.” It is unclear when Facebook took down these ads.
Facebook did not respond to ET’s questions about its ad policies being circumvented during the elections.
To be sure, every political party uses affiliates — both official and unofficial — a network of pages or groups about an ideology, a fan club, a leader. The official affiliate in question assists the BJP on its digital campaigns — with multiple properties (pages) on Facebook. For instance, the Trinamool Congress is currently running a campaign called ‘Banglar Gorbo Mamata’ and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has its own called ‘TN Deserves Better’. Both these campaigns are run by the Prashant Kishor-led Indian Political Action Committee. The Congress too has used affiliates in the past with pages like “Mahayuti Adhogati” in Maharashtra last year.
Some of these including “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar”, “Nation with NaMo” for instance, as confirmed by recent media reports, displayed addresses that matched with the official headquarters of the BJP in Deendayal Upadhyay Marg, New Delhi. Besides, each of these phone numbers would be serialised. Some of these pages did apply for and receive their media certification. On different occasions, others like Modi11 and, “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar” also had addresses that merely said “Barakhamba Road, New Delhi – 110001.”
“The modus operandi was simple. The easiest option to circumvent these rules was to create websites, apply for authorisation and then park the domain on GoDaddy with stock content once they received the political authorisation. Then, political networks (like this official affiliate) will start posting these ads by the hundreds and thousands,” says a person familiar with the development. “They were also spending money on ads to recruit users for WhatsApp groups,” the person adds. The latter includes pages like Bharat Positive, also part of this affiliate, which spent Rs 200 on two ads to lure its followers to sign up for WhatsApp groups.
Multiple pages, including “Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat” and “Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar”, spent on ads featuring a link ‘bjpwa.com’, which had links to WhatsApp groups these affiliates were running. Modi11, which was released during the Indian Premier League (IPL) on Instagram and Facebook, had content people could download and share on WhatsApp.
ET can confirm that some of these websites (“Ghar Ghar Raghubar”, “Mai Hoon Dilli”) do not have any content on them, including for the ones the affiliate recently created as part of its campaigns for state elections. Other websites (Bhak Budbak and Nirmamata, for instance) have the exact same template with stock content from their respective Facebook pages.
In the run-up to the elections last year, Facebook had announced a series of moves aimed at bolstering transparency during the elections, including requiring advertisers to disclose their identity and location. In an email to advertisers — both individual and agencies, in December 2018, it said that individual advertisers and agencies must provide scanned copies of address and identity proofs, which would be verified by visits by its agents.
“While by and large, the elections went off smoothly for Facebook, everyone had teething issues, especially around KYC with Facebook relying on third-party vendors for verification. But there was informal help from some Facebook officials to overcome these issues,” says another person aware of the matter, on a condition of anonymity. “Adding to the issues was Facebook’s actions against some BJP-linked pages on accounts of ‘Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour.’ For a while, some relations were strained, and things were put on hold.”
To be clear, these problems were not unique to the BJP. “Other parties also faced these issues. There were people who would handhold them, as they would with any major advertiser,” this person adds. The WSJ report added, citing former employees in India and the US, also “where the decision was discussed”, that “Facebook neither took down the pages nor flagged the ads. Instead, it privately raised the matter with the BJP.”
BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya did not respond to ET’s email questionnaire.
Facebook officials like Sarah Schiff, a product manager, had told ET that “Those engaging with political advertising in India must comply with the policy.” Last year, it hired former NDTV journalist Natasha Jog as election integrity lead for India. Jog was said to be working closely with her former NDTV colleague and then director of public policy for India and South Asia, Shivnath Thukral. A recent Time Magazine report citing documents revealed that Thukral, prior to joining Facebook, “had worked with party leadership to assist in the 2014 election campaign.” In the report, Facebook acknowledged Thukral’s association.
Facebook also put together a cross-functional “war room” for the Indian elections that spanned continents, in locations like New Delhi, Singapore, Dublin and it’s Menlo Park headquarters. A smaller part of that war room was based in New Delhi.
Continues in state level
While the attention is on the 2019 general elections, the affiliate also works extensively on state-level campaigns. For instance, in Maharashtra, it ran pages such as “Distoy Farak Shivashahi Parat” as part of Devendra Fadnavis’ re-election campaign, again using similar modus operandi as it did in the general elections. For instance, it parked a domain, with the advertiser address as “Civil Line Road, Civil Line, Nagpur, India – 440033.” When Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party came together to form a government in November, a page called “Aghadi Bighadi” (spent Rs 1,376,970) was deleted.
Other campaigns in the Haryana elections included “Phir Ek Baar Imandar Sarkar” and “Chor Machaye Shor” with its address to “Rohtak Bypass Road, Rohtak” and later in Jharkhand, “Ghar Ghar Raghubar” and “Thugs of Jharkhand”.
In New Delhi, it ran pages like “AAP ke PAAP” and “Main Hoon Dilli” with an address linked to Tughlakabad Extension in New Delhi for the former, and Digboi Road, Tinsukia for the latter. For the upcoming elections in Bihar, the official affiliate also runs pages such as “Bhak Budbak”, and “2020 Modi Sang Nitish” with different Patna-based addresses.
Over the last six months, it has also been running pages critical of West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress, with titles such as “Nirmamata” and “The Frustrated Bengali”, with addresses in Siliguri and Asansol respectively.
It is unclear if Facebook verified these addresses as disclosed by these affiliate pages, as per its authentication policy, or whether it considered this affiliate a sole advertiser, giving it permission to run as many pages as it wanted from multiple addresses. A Facebook spokesperson — Andy Stone told WSJ that “Facebook decided not to act after concluding its rules hadn’t been specific enough.”
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