New Delhi: Social media giant Facebook has taken down 11,000 advertisements posted by a Chinese app named Helo, due to their political content. Helo is owned by ByteDance, the same company that owns the controversial video-sharing app TikTok.
Facebook removed these ads because they referred to political figures, politics, and nationally-important issues, but did not contain a disclaimer on who paid for the ad, in line with its efforts to increase the transparency of political ad spend on its platform.
This is among the highest number of ads by a single app that Facebook has taken down. According to its Ad Library, it has also removed 49 ads by Vigo Video, also owned by ByteDance, and seven ads posted by ShareChat, a direct competitor of Helo.
The ad spend on these 11,000 ads was approximately Rs 7.7 crore, as per data available in the Facebook Ad Library.
The move comes at a time when the Election Commission has raised concerns about political ads on social media platforms, which could end up influencing voters. Last month, ThePrint had reported that the EC had written to the union law ministry, seeking a check on Facebook and Twitter ads ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Helo told ThePrint that political advertisements were only a fraction of all its ads.
“At Helo, we take concerns around political advertising very seriously. As with anyother social media platform, we harness digital advertising with the sole purpose of driving user growth,” Helo said in a statement to ThePrint. “Out of all the ads that have been generated from Helo since we launched in June 2018, ads citing political mentions amount to only 0.02 per cent.”
It further said that it will stay away from political ads this election season. “These ads were all generated prior to the declaration of General Elections by the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct,” the statement said. “In line with abiding by Model Code of Conduct, we have informed the ECI that we will not serve any paid political advertisements throughout this election period and will not be proactively onboarding any political figures or parties on our platform.”
Helo’s chequered track record
Helo features content like jokes, shayari, information on sports, entertainment and current affairs in 14 Indian languages.
Its ad content does not promote any particular political party, but promotes the use of Helo by showing “news” about politicians, politics and national issues. Some of its ad captions read “BJP using Atalji to the maximum potential”, “Result day tomorrow no doubt bjp return again mp election result (sic)”, “What utter ridiculousness on display by aaptards…”, or “…Rahul Gandhi said we will abolish GST, now the Congress ruled states are in disagreement to even reduce the slabs”.
The descriptions and images are peppered with sensationalism — such as politicians’ faces photoshopped on to images of an adult pushing a baby in a tricycle, and nonsensical strings of letters.
Fake news problem
In addition to questionable ad content, Helo also has an ongoing fake news content problem.
A November 2018 Hindustan Times report highlighted a range of fake news available on Helo, such as BBC purportedly calling the Congress the “fourth most corrupt party in the world” and Congress leader Sachin Pilot allegedly saying “India should have helped Pakistan clear its debt rather than invest in the Statue of Unity”.
To counter misinformation, Helo partnered with the fact-checking service AltNews in December 2018. However, there is still fake news and misleading information available on Helo platform.
For example, on 27 March, ThePrint was able to find a post on Helo linking to an article comparing the price of the meals Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi consume. According to the article, Modi eats breakfast at 7 am and eats dhokla, thepla or poha, with his meals costing about Rs 50 or 60. Gandhi, it claimed, wakes up at 6 am, exercises for two hours and then eats/drinks coffee and omelettes, or even kaju shakes and seasonal fruits, which cost about Rs 200. No sources are provided for this information.
‘Won’t publish political ads in poll period’
Helo told ThePrint it will not publish ads that may be construed as political, in keeping with the EC’s goal to ensure a fair election process.
“We have informed ECI that we will not serve any political advertisements on our platform throughout this election period,” Helo said in its email.
Helo has stopped publishing politics-related ads on Facebook on 20 February 2019.
- The copy has been updated with Helo’s response, received on 1 April.