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How a Reliance-funded agency boosts BJP’s campaigns on Fb | Enterprise and Financial system Information


New Delhi, India – Within the 2019 parliamentary elections, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Get together (BJP) fielded a Hindu ascetic accused of “terrorism”. As quickly because the BJP picked Pragya Singh Thakur as its candidate for a seat within the decrease home of Parliament, Fb confirmed an commercial that mimicked the model of a information report however carried a “false declare” within the headline.

The commercial wrongly proclaimed that Thakur had been “acquitted” of the cost of constructing out there her motorbike to plant explosives that killed six individuals within the Muslim-majority Malegaon city within the western state of Maharashtra. It acquired 300,000 views in a day. Thakur, who continues to be dealing with trial, received the election whereas out on bail for medical remedy.

Screengrab of BJP politician Pragya Tiwari
Screengrab from Fb’s Advert Library reveals NEWJ ran a false declare about Pragya Thakur as an commercial [File: Facebook Ad Library]

A month earlier than voting started on April 11, Fb confirmed an commercial lampooning opposition occasion Indian Nationwide Congress’s then-president Rahul Gandhi. In a speech accusing the BJP of being “gentle on terrorism”, Gandhi mentioned the final time the BJP was in energy within the late Nineties, it launched from jail Masood Azhar, the top 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.

A screengrab of Rahul Gandhi speaking at a rally in India
NEWJ ran an commercial about Rahul Gandhi’s sarcastic reference to Masood Azhar [File: Facebook Ad Library]

The commercial that ran, nonetheless, had stripped Gandhi’s speech of that damning context from historical past. As an alternative, dressed up as a information report with a emblem known as NEWJ, it meme-fied Gandhi and ran with a headline “When Rahul Known as Masood Azhar ‘ji’” and gathered roughly 650,000 views in 4 days.

A Fb web page known as NEWJ paid for each the ads, as per Fb’s Advert Library, a graphical interface to browse ads positioned throughout Meta Platforms, Fb’s guardian firm. NEWJ, the acronym for New Rising World of Journalism Restricted, is a subsidiary of Jio Platforms Ltd, India’s largest telecom and web conglomerate which is owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group.

Loopholes in how the Election Fee of India (ECI) applies the legislation and a selective software of Fb’s guidelines and processes allowed India’s largest conglomerate to pump in tens of millions of rupees to put and promote these surrogate ads to spice up the attain and recognition of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP within the lead as much as the 2019 parliamentary elections and 9 state elections. Surrogate ads promote a politician however will not be immediately funded or authorised by that candidate.

When Fb did crack down on surrogate ads, ostensibly to make sure transparency and accountability, it did so by principally concentrating on advertisers selling BJP’s most important opponent, Congress, however allowed pages like NEWJ to proceed.

Over the previous yr, The Reporters’ Collective (TRC), a non-profit media organisation based mostly in India, and, a analysis venture learning political advertisements on social media, analysed knowledge of all of the 536,070 political ads positioned on Fb and Instagram from February 2019 by November 2020 to evaluate the affect of Fb’s political promoting insurance policies on elections within the nation. They accessed the info by Fb’s Advert Library Software Programming Interface (API) and located that in these 22 months, which included the high-octane 2019 nationwide election and 9 state elections, Fb’s promoting platform systematically undercut the political competitors on the planet’s largest electoral democracy, giving an unfair benefit to the BJP over its rivals.

Within the first a part of the sequence right this moment, we reveal how Fb allowed a agency funded by Reliance to work the authorized loophole to publish surrogate ads in favour of the BJP and assist it attain a wider viewers. The following elements will present the size and impact of the BJP’s surrogate promoting ecosystem and the way even Fb’s algorithms – directions and guidelines coded in software program – present an higher hand to the BJP over its rivals throughout elections.

Commercials dressed as information tales

NEWJ positions itself as a start-up catering “information content material” to individuals in villages and small cities solely by social media. In actuality, the corporate buys commercial area on Fb and Instagram to publish movies lots of which are literally political promotions however are dressed as information tales. The ads have one underlying theme – to advertise the BJP, together with by fuelling misinformation, inciting anti-Muslim sentiments and denigrating opposition events.

Not like posts created by Fb customers or pages, that are then usually delivered to the timelines of buddies and followers, ads are paid posts proven by Fb to customers past such anticipated attain. Advertisers can goal customers based mostly on a number of knowledge factors equivalent to customers’ location, demographics and behaviours that Fb screens and collects knowledge on. Claiming transparency forward of the elections, Fb began tagging and displaying “all advertisements associated to politics” in India within the Advert Library in February 2019.

The Advert Library reveals that the NEWJ web page revealed roughly 170 political ads over the three months main as much as the parliamentary elections. Most both glorified BJP leaders, projected voters’ help for Modi, stoked nationalistic and spiritual sentiments — the ballot planks of the BJP – or mocked opposition leaders and the rallies they held.

These ads have been fastidiously unfold out amongst a relentless stream of non-political, informational movies about India’s historical past and tradition or viral movies – equivalent to a disabled girl writing a college examination along with her foot – that NEWJ posts to seize eyeballs for its social media channels.

The surrogate advertiser

NEWJ founder Shalabh Upadhyay has shut household ties with each Reliance and the BJP. His father Umesh Upadhyay is president and media director at Reliance Industries Ltd and beforehand labored as president of stories at Reliance-owned Community-18 group that runs a number of stories channels in India. His uncle Satish Upadhyay is a BJP chief and former president of the occasion’s Delhi unit.

NEWJ, nonetheless, doesn’t declare any formal hyperlink with the BJP and there’s no public file of the occasion paying NEWJ for creating or publishing political ads. From its inception in January 2018 till March 2020, the interval for which we reviewed NEWJ’s financials, it earned no income from information operations and even as charges for putting ads. As an alternative, it spent cash invested by Reliance Group on ads, the corporate steadiness sheets present.

Publishing surrogate or ghost ads that favour a politician however will not be immediately funded or authorised by that candidate is a criminal offense beneath Indian legislation. The legislation goals to carry political events accountable for all the data they put out and prohibit use of unknown sources of cash to pay for ads for election campaigns.

However the ECI doesn’t lengthen this ban to digital platforms, like Fb, regardless of being conscious of the loophole for years, as a Proper to Data (RTI) software by TRC reveals.

For that matter, Fb’s guardian Meta too didn’t implement this rule, permitting Reliance-funded NEWJ to quietly promote BJP and its candidates on Fb and Instagram in the course of the elections.

This aside, paperwork leaked by Fb whistleblower Frances Haugen not too long ago confirmed that Fb had pushed business physique Web and Cellular Affiliation of India (IAMAI) to foyer with the ECI to not impose stiff laws on social media platforms throughout parliamentary elections.

Though Fb claims to have acted towards surrogate advertisers earlier than the parliamentary elections, most of its targets have been the advertisers that promoted Congress. In a much-publicised crackdown on what it known as “Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour”, an motion it took on its platform in a number of nations, it eliminated 687 pages and accounts that it mentioned promoted the Congress occasion however hid their affiliation with it. Just one web page and 14 accounts that promoted the BJP have been eliminated. These have been owned and operated by an IT agency known as Silver Contact which had not formally declared its hyperlink with the BJP.

In an interview then, Nathaniel Gleicher, the top of cybersecurity coverage at Fb, mentioned: “We’re wanting right here for pages, teams which can be designed to look unbiased, however are literally linked to an organisation or political occasion and making an attempt to hide or disguise this hyperlink.” He gave examples of accounts that pretended to be information pages however have been truly being run by political events.

“However inside a couple of weeks of this announcement, Fb internally declared a world freeze on actions towards Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour originating from inside a rustic,” Sophie Zhang, former Fb worker who later turned whistleblower, instructed TRC.

In different phrases, after the preliminary takedown that principally focused Congress-linked pages, related motion was not taken towards any occasion’s advertisers throughout or after the 2019 elections.

In response to an inventory of detailed questions over e-mail, together with on political ads by NEWJ, Meta mentioned: “We apply our insurance policies uniformly with out regard to anybody’s political positions or occasion affiliations. The choices round integrity work or content material escalations can’t and will not be made unilaterally by only one particular person; relatively, they’re inclusive of various views from across the firm, a course of that’s crucial to creating positive we think about, perceive and account for each native and international contexts.”

It added, “Our enforcement towards Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour was by no means stopped and continues even after the April 2019 elections.” Meta’s full response will be learn right here PDF (PDF).

The BJP benefitted as NEWJ pages continued to advertise the occasion and its leaders by posts and ads in a number of state elections with out dealing with any scrutiny.

From February 2019 by November 2020, NEWJ positioned 718 political ads over a interval of twenty-two months and 10 elections, that collectively have been seen greater than 290 million instances by Fb customers, in response to the Advert Archive knowledge. The corporate spent 5.2 million rupees ($67,899) on these ads.

Many of those ads lit the fuse of anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments, Tommy-gunned BJP’s opponents and critics, and eulogised Modi’s authorities. Pattern these.

In April 2019 Modi evoked “nationalist” sentiments in an election rally by warning Pakistan of India’s nuclear energy. “India has stopped the coverage of getting petrified of Pakistan’s threats. Each different day they used to say ‘we’ve got nuclear button, we’ve got nuclear button’. What do we’ve got then? Have we stored it for Diwali [a major Hindu festival in which Indians burst fireworks]?” Modi had mentioned.

Reacting to this, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Modi’s opponent within the state, Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted, “If India hasn’t stored nuclear bomb for Diwali, it’s apparent Pakistan’s not stored theirs for Eid both. Don’t know why PM Modi should stoop so low & cut back political discourse to this.”

Utilizing Mufti’s tweet with out the context of Modi’s speech, a NEWJ commercial portrayed her as somebody who “shills for Pakistan”. “Mehbooba’s love for Pakistan acquired uncovered a second time. Mehbooba Mufti as soon as once more took Pakistan’s facet,” the commercial mentioned.

A screengrab of Indian politician Mehbooba Mufti speaking
NEWJ’s commercial portraying Mehbooba Mufti as somebody who shills for Pakistan [File: Facebook Ad Library]

NEWJ ads sought to fireside up Hindu spiritual sentiments too, a core BJP tenet. In Might 2019, “#BoycottAmazon” was trending on Twitter after Amazon, the worldwide on-line retail big and competitor of Reliance in retail area in India, was discovered promoting merchandise with Hindu gods’ pictures on them. NEWJ was fast to run an commercial that mentioned: “India reveals its energy to Amazon. Folks’s anger has come out. Arising with merchandise of gods and goddesses, turned pricey.”


A not allowed sign on Amazon's website
NEWJ’s commercial amid an issue involving pictures of Hindu gods on merchandise offered by Amazon [File: Facebook Ad Library]

Put up the 2019 nationwide elections, NEWJ continued with tales that applauded authorities insurance policies and BJP leaders, or scary ones a few new risk.

In December 2019, when the BJP-led federal authorities launched the Citizenship Modification Act (CAA) to amend the associated legislation to supply amnesty to refugees, barring Muslims, from neighbouring nations, waves of protests lashed throughout the nation. However in November 2020, NEWJ ran an commercial on Fb that confirmed movies of Muslims attacking Hindu houses in Bangladesh, over rumours about an alleged Fb submit slandering Islam, to inform the protesters in India why they need to help the brand new citizenship legislation, saying, “minority Hindus have all the time been the sufferer of anger [of majority Muslims in Bangladesh]”.

Posters saying boycott France
A hate message associated to Bangladesh was unfold by this commercial run by NEWJ amid the CAA protests [File: Facebook Ad Library]

When singer Rihanna and different international celebrities spoke up for Indian farmers who have been protesting towards Modi’s authorities’s farm legal guidelines, NEWJ ran an commercial asking why the “celebs” spoke on the “instigated” farm protests however have been quiet when “India is attacked”.

NEWJ ran an ad against celebrities like Rihanna who spoke up for Indian farmers
NEWJ ran an commercial towards celebrities like Rihanna who spoke up for Indian farmers [File: Facebook Ad Library]

BJP’s chief spokesman Anil Baluni and IT and social media head Amit Malviya didn’t reply to TRC’s questions regardless of repeated reminders.

Systematic funding

Shalabh Upadhyay and his sister Deeksha arrange NEWJ as a personal restricted firm with a paid-up capital of 100,000 rupees ($1,306) in January 2018. In mid-November, Reliance Group firm Reliance Industrial Funding and Holdings Restricted (RIIHL) took over NEWJ with a 75 p.c fairness stake. It then lent the corporate 84 million rupees ($1.1m) through convertible debentures.

Flush with money, NEWJ did extra of the identical work–producing and publishing movies on social media, typically as ads that promoted the BJP, monetary data and NEWJ manufacturing on Fb and YouTube present. NEWJ ended the monetary yr in March 2019 with revenues of a paltry 3.37 million rupees ($44,003) on which it netted a web lack of 22.06 million rupees ($288,046).

Subsequent yr, Reliance pumped in one other 125 million rupees ($1.63m) once more by debentures in NEWJ. For the monetary yr ending March 2020, NEWJ didn’t file any revenues however did have promoting promotional bills of 27.3 million rupees ($356,467), up from 6.06 million rupees ($79,128) the earlier yr. On the time, the RIIHL stake was taken over by one other Reliance Group firm, Jio Platforms Ltd, the nation’s largest telecom operator which earned income of 902.9 billion rupees ($12.07bn) within the monetary yr ending March 2021.

Six days earlier than Jio took it over, NEWJ amended its “Articles of Affiliation” to provide its “investor”, on this case Jio, management over what content material NEWJ produces, aggregates or disseminates. Jio lent one other 84.96 million rupees ($1.12m) to NEWJ at a negligible 0.0001 p.c annual rate of interest within the monetary yr ending March 2021. Jio counts Fb as an investor.

NEWJ says its short-form movies, which it publishes “solely on social media”, had been watched for a complete of 4 billion minutes and have an aggregated attain of greater than 22 billion – “thrice the inhabitants of the world”.

RIIHL and Jio didn’t reply to TRC’s queries on NEWJ’s ads.

In his response to TRC, NEWJ chief government Shalabh Upadhya mentioned, “As one of many largest social-first information publishers, NEWJ is devoted to delivering clear and impactful unbiased journalism … To this finish, we strictly abide by Meta’s group pointers and promoting insurance policies whereas following the really useful authorisation processes to make sure integrity, transparency and high quality of our reportage.”

He didn’t reply to particular questions on ads positioned by NEWJ, which used pro-BJP disinformation or fired up anti-Muslim sentiments.

ECI and Fb shut eyes

To insulate elections from cash energy, Indian election legal guidelines cap the cash a candidate can spend on campaigns. If a 3rd occasion, with no declared affiliation with the candidate, pays for that candidate’s ads in print and digital media, the ECI considers it because the candidate’s spending. The ECI additionally investigates situations the place paid promotions are camouflaged as information within the conventional media. If discovered {that a} piece of “information” was certainly paid for to advertise a candidate, the ECI provides the precise or notional expenditure on the commercial to the candidate’s election bills.

These guidelines, nonetheless, will not be utilized to the ads positioned on social media.

In 2013, the ECI made it obligatory for all political events, candidates and their authorised brokers to get social media ads pre-certified from the fee and report the expenditure on them. But it surely stored the ads positioned by third events, entities not formally linked to the candidates, out of this regulation, leaving the window open for surrogate ads.

In its October 25, 2013 order, the ECI mentioned social media was a part of the digital media and the ads could be regulated similarly. But it surely added that it was nonetheless contemplating the right way to cope with content material posted by individuals apart from the candidates and their events “in as far as they relate to, or will be moderately related with, the election campaigning of political events and candidates”.

In response to the TRC’s Proper to Data (RTI) question earlier this yr to establish the end result of those consultations, the ECI cited the “Voluntary Code of Ethics” that business physique the Web and Cellular Affiliation of India (IAMAI) had drafted in March 2019 for social media platforms “to keep up the integrity of the electoral course of”. The Voluntary Code of Ethics doesn’t have any particular suggestion on surrogate ads, a loophole that was properly exploited in time for the parliamentary and 9 state elections.

Meta instructed TRC that it follows the Voluntary Code of Ethics for elections. “This builds on the continued dialogue we’ve had with the fee, in addition to with the campaigns and political events,” it mentioned in an e-mail. It didn’t tackle the allegations of lobbying with the ECI.

The ECI didn’t reply to TRC’s queries.

After it confronted backlash in the US for allegedly influencing elections, Fb rolled out a coverage in 2018 to confirm the identification and tackle of people that place political ads. It now asks all such advertisers to declare who’s paying for the ads and shows the main points of the funding entity within the Advert Library. Fb, nonetheless, doesn’t confirm whether or not the identification disclosures by the advertiser is truthful. Nor does it verify if it is likely to be funding these ads on behalf of political events or their candidates.

Fb exempts all ads positioned by “certified” information organisations from verification or funding disclosures. It doesn’t think about NEWJ to be an unbiased information organisation.

In response to TRC’s queries, Shalabh Upadhyay equated NEWJ with information organisations equivalent to Al Jazeera.

“We utilise the Meta Advert Library to amplify our content material throughout genres which showcases excessive engagement with our audiences – a normal business observe employed by different digital publishers equivalent to NowThis, Brut, Vice and AJ+ as properly to call a couple of. By doing so we’re capable of serve our customers whereas reaching out to higher audiences with factual information that aligns with their pursuits,” he mentioned. Upadhayay’s full response will be learn right here (NEWJ response).

Half 2 of the sequence will reveal others like Reliance-promoted NEWJ who’re a part of the surrogate promoting ecosystem on Fb.

Kumar Sambhav is a member of The Reporters’ Collective and Nayantara Ranganathan is a researcher with




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