New Delhi: An investigative report released by Al Jazeera has claimed that Facebook carried advertisements promoting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls with the aim of increasing the ruling party’s visibility on social media platforms, bypassing the law.
These advertisements, which were in a video format, were featured on Facebook’s ad library. The advertisers “either hid their identities or their connections with the BJP”, according to the piece, which is based on the findings of non-profit media organisation The Reporters’ Collective and ad.watch, a research project studying political advertisements on social media.
The report, written by journalists Kumar Sambhav, Shreegireesh Jalihal and Nayantara Ranganathan, fleshed out details of how Facebook carried “surrogate advertisements” that were allegedly in favour of the BJP, or discredited opposition parties.
It cited the example of news organisation NEWJ or New Emerging World of Journalism Limited — a media firm funded by Reliance — that disseminated articles and videos primarily through social media.
NEWJ, according to the report, allegedly bought advertisement space from Facebook and Instagram and published videos that promoted the BJP’s agenda and denounced opposition parties during the 2019 elections.
While Section 171H (illegal payments in connection with an election) of the Indian Penal Code prohibits political advertising without authorisation of the concerned election candidate in print and electronic media, the same has not been extended to social media by the Election Commission of India (ECI), according to the report.
Facebook has denied the allegations made in the article, stating that there are specialised teams focussed on identifying such political ads and taking them down. It also said that it applies its “policies uniformly without regard to anyone’s political positions or party affiliations”.
Shalabh Upadhyay, CEO and editor-in-chief of NEWJ, too has denounced all claims made in the Al Jazeera report, saying that his is an independent news outlet that has not favoured any political party. On Tuesday, he also posted a response on Twitter, attaching several links to NEWJ articles, stating that the Congress was also given equal importance in their political coverage.
What are ‘surrogate’ advertisements?
‘Surrogate’ advertisements are used by companies to promote a banned product under the guise of advertising an item that is legal. In India, several alcohol and tobacco companies have found ways to popularise their brand name in the advertising space by selling music CDs, glasses or food items.
According to the Al Jazeera report, Facebook, in a similar manner, allowed organisations to promote BJP candidates and agendas by disguising content as news.
One example cited by the report is that of then BJP candidate Pragya Thakur, who was out on bail in the Malegaon blast case, while NEWJ had allegedly proclaimed that she had been acquitted.
What is Facebook’s ad library?
Facebook’s ad library provides information about political ads it has carried. While a user can easily access videos under the latest ‘active’ and ‘inactive’ ad sections, Facebook allows users to access data that is more than a year old after verifying their identity.
Videos of political leaders published by NEWJ were also found under the ‘sponsored’ category of Facebook’s ad library.
Among them was a video, cited in the Al Jazeera piece, that ran as “sponsored” news content published by NEWJ in the ad library. The video was of a 2019 speech made by then Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who mockingly referred to Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as “Azharji” as he criticised National Security Adviser Ajit Doval for overseeing the release of Azhar during the IC 814 hijacking.
The video was posted with the comment: “When Rahul called Mazood Azhar ‘ji’”.
In November 2021, Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, claimed that during the 2019 parliamentary elections, Facebook had lobbied over election laws. Internal documents sourced by her reportedly stated the social media giant had convinced the ECI to maintain a voluntary code of ethics instead of “stiff social media restrictions”. Therefore, the blackout time right before the results were never applicable to Facebook or any other social media company.
This officially relieved the firm of any legal obligations. In 2019, social media companies agreed to a voluntary code of ethics to “ensure free, fair and ethical usage of social media platforms to maintain the integrity of the electoral process for the general elections 2019”. This statement was agreed to by all social media firms who had attended the meeting with then election commissioner of India Sunil Arora.
In response to Al Jazeera, Facebook, in a statement, said that “anyone willing to advertise can run ads about elections or politics, provided the advertiser complies with all applicable laws and authorisation process required by Meta on its platforms. Where appropriate, we may restrict issue, electoral or political ads. We don’t allow ads that violate our ad policies and also disable ads flagged to us by the Election Commission of India which we find a violation in local election laws.”
Facebook also stated that there are specialised teams focussed on identifying such political ads and taking them down, refuting allegations that were made in the report.
The Meta spokesperson wrote: “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.”
With regards to taking down “fake content”, the statement said: “We have also continuously detected and taken action against spam and fake engagement in the region, in line with our policies.”
Refuting claims made in the Al Jazeera article, NEWJ CEO and editor-in-chief Shalabh Upadhyay has stated that NEWJ is an independent news outlet and has not favoured any political party.
In a series of tweets that started off as a response to Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s accusation of running a fake news media outlet backed by Reliance, Upadhyay Tuesday cited reports of coverage that included that of Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra interacting with voters.
Dear @Kharge sir, we are an independent news organisation – @NEWJplus covers all stories relevant to our Indian viewers. Here are some additional stories that Al Jazeera conveniently forgot to include in their reporting. https://t.co/gOQ5TK6ehO pic.twitter.com/TqpjEP1geO
— Shalabh Upadhyay (@ShalabhUpadhyay) March 15, 2022
He also included a snippet wherein the party’s interim president Sonia Gandhi spoke about her life after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated.
Upadhyay said his organisation has maintained an unbiased view in political coverage, using the same sponsored space for opposition parties as well.