Note: This book review was first published on June 3, 2019.
Five years from now, we may well be reading a book about the BJP’s WhatsApp operations in the 2019 elections – featuring two lakh groups of 256 members each, or over 5o million readers of the party line. A recent book, however, tells the story of the 2014 elections, and the role of WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook in the rise of Narendra Modi.
In 2019, if we forget Facebook’s billions of dollars in revenue, we might almost feel sorry for it. Facebook has had a rough year, where it has been attacked both by the Left (for permitting the rise of right-wing troll armies), and the Right (for censorship of conservatives: Donald Trump has launched a new tool to report instances.)
But we can’t forget their billions of dollars of revenue, especially when, even in this tough year, Facebook’s income grew by 26% quarter-on-quarter. To add to the voices raised against it, a new book alleges that Facebook was both directly complicit in, and benefited from, the rise of Modi’s BJP in India.
The Real Face of Facebook in India, co-authored by the journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Cyril Sam, is a short, terse book that reads like a whodunnit. In the introduction, it is teased that the book will reveal ‘a wealth of details about the kind of support that Facebook provided Narendra Modi and the apparatus of the BJP apparatus (sic) even (sic) before the 2014 elections’. The many copy errors reveal that the book is an attempt to get the news out as widely and as quickly as possible. This is reporting, not deep analysis.
In line with the aim of reaching as wide an audience as possible, the book has been simultaneously published in Hindi under the title Facebook ka Asli Chehra. There is also a companion website, theaslifacebook.com, which also has a Hindi section.
Teasers to the big reveal come in the first few chapters, which do a slightly haphazard job of narrating the history of Facebook in India. The smoking gun is finally disclosed in Chapter 8 in the form of a person, Shivnath Thukral, a former NDTV journalist and ex-managing director of Carnegie India. Going by the evidence in the book, Thukral had a close working relationship with intimate Modi aide, Hiren Joshi. Together, they created the Mera Bharosa website and other web pages for the BJP in late 2013, ahead of the national election. In 2017, after his stint at Carnegie, Thukral joined Facebook as its director of policy for India and South Asia.
For a person so close to a ruling party to become a top official of a ‘neutral’ platform is worrying. Worrying enough, it seems, to trouble the company itself: Real Face claims that Katie Harbath, Facebook’s director for global politics and government outreach, said she was “unhappy and uneasy about the proximity” of top officials of Facebook to the Narendra Modi government. The quote is attributed to an anonymous source. Whether it is true or not, citizens should be concerned about this particular revolving door between the most powerful media organisation in the world and the Modi administration. (It’s a different matter that Harbath herself was once a digital strategist for the Republican Party and Rudy Giuliani).
The overarching story is this: The BJP was the first in our country to see the potential of Facebook as a way to reach voters. Facebook, a private corporation with an eye on building relevance in India and earning profits through advertising, saw in politics a great way to drive engagement. Both the BJP and Facebook had much to gain from a partnership.
As a result, in the run-up to the 2014 election, Facebook offered training to BJP personnel in running social media campaigns. (Facebook has stated that they conduct these workshops for various political parties, but the implication remains that the BJP, in being a first mover, benefited disproportionately).
The strategy worked beautifully for Facebook. As reported by Ankhi Das, Facebook India’s lead on policy and government relations, the 2014 elections reaped the platform 227 million interactions. Read today, Das’ article – which speaks of how ‘likes’ won Narendra Modi votes – comes off as more sinister than it might have at the time.
We also know that the strategy worked for Modi. So potent was BJP’s targeting that it won 90% of its votes in only 299 constituencies, 282 of which it won. Former and current members of the BJP’s digital media strategy team were happy to confirm the mutual benefit. The current member is Vinit Goenka, once the national co-convener of the BJP’s IT cell, and currently working with Nitin Gadkari. This is how the book tells it:
At one stage in our interview with Goenka that lasted over two hours, we asked him a pointed question: ‘Who helped whom more, Facebook or the BJP?’
He smiled and said: ‘That’s a difficult question. I wonder whether the BJP helped Facebook more than Facebook helped the BJP. You could say, we helped each other.’
Equally alarming are reports, in the book, of Facebook denying Congress paid ads to publicise the Rafale controversy. Facebook also delayed a boost on a Caravan expose on Amit Shah by more than 11 days, an eternity in our ridiculously fast news cycle. Finally, there are reports of Indian propaganda companies replicating these lessons in elections in South Africa and other countries. Taken together, we see how private platforms are happy to be used to manipulate democratic processes, whether in service of the Right or Left or Centre.
This book is concerned with critiquing Facebook’s links with the right-wing. It has a foreword by the popular journalist Ravish Kumar and a preface by professor Apoorvanand of the Department of Hindi at Delhi University (and a contributor at The Wire). Both of these belong to what the right-wing terms the ‘secular’ brigade.
However, we know now that Facebook is also acting against some of the assets of the BJP itself. This may be an eyewash, or just the logical next step in Facebook’s project: having created its importance in elections with the help of the BJP, it is now selling its influence to other parties. It doesn’t matter which party comes out on top in the social media game: the house always wins. Even supporters of the BJP should be wary of the monster they have fed. There is no reason for Facebook to be loyal to the party.
Cambridge Analytica, by using limited data from Facebook, was able to influence the Brexit and 2016 US presidential elections. The book asks: what kind of influence can the platform itself exert on our democratic processes?
Real Face’s cover image is a sinister face staring back at the reader, a clear rejection of Facebook’s cute aesthetic – promoted with its sprays of animated hearts and balloons, and its cloying AI videos. The ‘Face’ of the logo is in blue, and the ‘book’ is in green, with one ‘o’ replaced by WhatsApp’s logo, a reminder that that service is owned by the same corporation.
The question citizens have to ask is: how much power do we allow one corporation, and its 35-year-old CEO, to have? What can be done about its near-monopolistic grip on data, and its ability to unilaterally impede or encourage the flow of information? These are early days, and one can hope that checks and balances will kick in. Until that happens, our work – of simply keeping up with how platforms propel or impede political interests – will be cut out for us.
Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist concerned with the intersections between politics, marketing and technology.