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


New Delhi, India – Within the 2019 parliamentary elections, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Celebration (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 type 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 creating accessible her motorbike to plant explosives that killed six individuals within the Muslim-majority Malegaon city within the western state of Maharashtra. It received 300,000 views in a day. Thakur, who remains to be going through trial, gained the election whereas out on bail for medical remedy.

Screengrab of BJP politician Pragya Tiwari
Screengrab from Fb’s Advert Library exhibits 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 advertisement lampooning opposition celebration Indian Nationwide Congress’s then-president Rahul Gandhi. In a speech accusing the BJP of being “comfortable on terrorism”, Gandhi stated the final time the BJP was in energy within the late Nineties, it launched from jail Masood Azhar, the pinnacle 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, nevertheless, had stripped Gandhi’s speech of that damning context from historical past. As an alternative, dressed up as a information report with a brand 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 commercials, as per Fb’s Advert Library, a graphical interface to browse commercials positioned throughout Meta Platforms, Fb’s dad or mum 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 utility of Fb’s guidelines and processes allowed India’s largest conglomerate to pump in hundreds of thousands of rupees to put and promote these surrogate commercials 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 commercials promote a politician however should not immediately funded or authorised by that candidate.

When Fb did crack down on surrogate commercials, ostensibly to make sure transparency and accountability, it did so by largely focusing on advertisers selling BJP’s fundamental 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 ad.Watch, a analysis challenge finding out political adverts on social media, analysed information of all of the 536,070 political commercials positioned on Fb and Instagram from February 2019 by way of November 2020 to evaluate the affect of Fb’s political promoting insurance policies on elections within the nation. They accessed the information by way of Fb’s Advert Library Utility 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 opponents.

Within the first a part of the sequence as we speak, we reveal how Fb allowed a agency funded by Reliance to work the authorized loophole to publish surrogate commercials in favour of the BJP and assist it attain a wider viewers. The next 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 opponents 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 way of social media. In actuality, the corporate buys commercial area on Fb and Instagram to publish movies a lot of which are literally political promotions however are dressed as information tales. The commercials 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 sometimes delivered to the timelines of mates and followers, commercials are paid posts proven by Fb to customers past such anticipated attain. Advertisers can goal customers based mostly on a number of information factors resembling customers’ location, demographics and behaviours that Fb displays and collects information on. Claiming transparency forward of the elections, Fb began tagging and displaying “all adverts associated to politics” in India within the Advert Library in February 2019.

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

These commercials have been fastidiously unfold out amongst a relentless stream of non-political, informational movies about India’s historical past and tradition or viral movies – resembling 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 reports at Reliance-owned Community-18 group that runs a bunch of reports channels in India. His uncle Satish Upadhyay is a BJP chief and former president of the celebration’s Delhi unit.

NEWJ, nevertheless, doesn’t declare any formal hyperlink with the BJP and there’s no public file of the celebration paying NEWJ for creating or publishing political commercials. 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 commercials. As an alternative, it spent cash invested by Reliance Group on commercials, the corporate stability sheets present.

Publishing surrogate or ghost commercials that favour a politician however should not immediately funded or authorised by that candidate is a criminal offense below 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 commercials for election campaigns.

However the ECI doesn’t prolong this ban to digital platforms, like Fb, regardless of being conscious of the loophole for years, as a Proper to Info (RTI) utility by TRC exhibits.

For that matter, Fb’s dad or mum Meta too didn’t implement this rule, permitting Reliance-funded NEWJ to quietly promote BJP and its candidates on Fb and Instagram through the elections.

This aside, paperwork leaked by Fb whistleblower Frances Haugen just lately showed that Fb had pushed trade physique Web and Cellular Affiliation of India (IAMAI) to foyer with the ECI to not impose stiff rules 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 international locations, it eliminated 687 pages and accounts that it stated promoted the Congress celebration 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 pinnacle of cybersecurity coverage at Fb, stated: “We’re trying right here for pages, teams which might be designed to look impartial, however are literally linked to an organisation or political celebration 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, advised TRC.

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

In response to a listing of detailed questions over electronic mail, together with on political commercials by NEWJ, Meta stated: “We apply our insurance policies uniformly with out regard to anybody’s political positions or celebration affiliations. The selections round integrity work or content material escalations can not and should not made unilaterally by only one particular person; moderately, they’re inclusive of various views from across the firm, a course of that’s essential 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 could be learn right here (PDF).

The BJP benefitted as NEWJ pages continued to advertise the celebration and its leaders by way of posts and commercials in a number of state elections with out going through any scrutiny.

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

Many of those commercials 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 ‘now we have nuclear button, now we have nuclear button’. What do now we have then? Have we saved it for Diwali [a major Hindu festival in which Indians burst fireworks]?” Modi had stated.

Reacting to this, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and Modi’s opponent within the state, Mehbooba Mufti, tweeted, “If India hasn’t saved nuclear bomb for Diwali, it’s apparent Pakistan’s not saved theirs for Eid both. Don’t know why PM Modi should stoop so low & scale 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 received uncovered a second time. Mehbooba Mufti as soon as once more took Pakistan’s aspect,” the commercial stated.

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 commercials sought to fireplace up Hindu non secular sentiments too, a core BJP tenet. In Might 2019, “#BoycottAmazon” was trending on Twitter after Amazon, the worldwide on-line retail large 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 stated: “India exhibits its energy to Amazon. Individuals’s anger has come out. Arising with merchandise of gods and goddesses, turned expensive.”


A not allowed sign on Amazon's website
NEWJ’s commercial amid an argument involving pictures of Hindu gods on merchandise bought 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 couple of new menace.

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 international locations, waves of protests lashed throughout the nation. However in November 2020, NEWJ ran an commercial on Fb that confirmed movies of Muslims attacking Hindu properties in Bangladesh, over rumours about an alleged Fb submit slandering Islam, to inform the protesters in India why they have to assist the brand new citizenship legislation, saying, “minority Hindus have at all times been the sufferer of anger [of majority Muslims in Bangladesh]”.

Posters saying boycott France
A hate message associated to Bangladesh was unfold by way of 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 commercials that promoted the BJP, monetary information 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 way of 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 commercials.

In his response to TRC, NEWJ chief government Shalabh Upadhya stated, “As one of many largest social-first information publishers, NEWJ is devoted to delivering clear and impactful impartial journalism … To this finish, we strictly abide by Meta’s group tips 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 commercials 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 celebration, with no declared affiliation with the candidate, pays for that candidate’s commercials in print and digital media, the ECI considers it because the candidate’s spending. The ECI additionally investigates cases 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, nevertheless, should not utilized to the commercials positioned on social media.

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

In its October 25, 2013 order, the ECI stated social media was a part of the digital media and the commercials could be regulated in a similar way. Nevertheless it added that it was nonetheless contemplating how you can cope with content material posted by individuals apart from the candidates and their events “in as far as they relate to, or could be moderately linked with, the election campaigning of political events and candidates”.

In response to the TRC’s Proper to Info (RTI) question earlier this yr to establish the result of those consultations, the ECI cited the “Voluntary Code of Ethics” that trade 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 commercials, a loophole that was effectively exploited in time for the parliamentary and 9 state elections.

Meta advised TRC that it follows the Voluntary Code of Ethics for elections. “This builds on the continuing dialogue we’ve had with the fee, in addition to with the campaigns and political events,” it stated in an electronic mail. It didn’t handle the allegations of lobbying with the ECI.

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

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

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

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

“We utilise the Meta Advert Library to amplify our content material throughout genres which showcases excessive engagement with our audiences – a normal trade observe employed by different digital publishers resembling NowThis, Brut, Vice and AJ+ as effectively 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 stated. Upadhayay’s full response could 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

Leave A Reply