It seemed like an innocuous, gamified quiz. “How well do you know PM Modi?” the Facebook ad asked, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Check what your Modi meter says about you. Top scorers can win cool NaMo T-Shirts!”
The ad was created by My First Vote For Modi, a platform encouraging first-time voters to pick the incumbent prime minister in India’s mammoth national elections in May 2019. On the surface, it appeared to be part of the organic support for Modi from independent support groups that his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) insisted helped them return to power for a second term.
The giveaway? The address the platform provided to Facebook, which matched that of the BJP’s national headquarters in New Delhi. Its email — as shared with Facebook — elicits no response. Also, no one picks up the phone number registered with the social media firm after dozens of attempts over three months. ‘My First Vote For Modi’ is India’s fourth-largest political ad spender on Facebook, having burned through nearly $200,000 since February 2019. Yet like a ghost, it is untraceable. And it isn’t alone.
An OZY investigation reveals a pattern of high-spending, shadowy political advertisers who are using a web of previously unreported loopholes in Facebook’s transparency rules to turbocharge the image of Modi as a leader enjoying near-invincible online popularity. In India, they’re aided by weak enforcement of campaign financing laws, say experts.
Three of India’s 10 biggest political spenders on Facebook, and eight of the top 60 (see list below), are hard-to-trace pro-BJP proxies. Together, they’ve spent substantially more — more than $800,000 — in a year and a half than the BJP ($680,000) itself. This is very different from the US, where every one of the top 20 spenders is a government agency, formal political campaign, registered company or PAC, easy to track down and question. The Biden Victory Fund and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee are the top two spenders over the past month. But at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has largely forced most political campaigns into the digital sphere, India’s experience offers valuable lessons for other countries, including the US.
“It’s very worrying,” says Prashant Bhushan, a senior lawyer at the Indian Supreme Court who has authored multiple petitions seeking greater transparency in political funding. “Who is giving them the money?”
Facebook says that it requires all advertisers in India to undergo a “two-factor authentication” process before they’re allowed to put out sponsored political posts. They must provide a set of government-approved documents, and an address and a phone number where they are reachable.
All political ads, Facebook says, must carry the tags “sponsored by” or “paid for by,” followed by the identity of the spender. The company has introduced versions of these transparency norms in many major nations in the face of questions — often pertaining to foreign interference — that have shadowed multiple global elections, especially the 2016 US presidential campaign.
But our investigation shows that the biggest pro-Modi spenders are unreachable on the phone numbers they’ve registered with Facebook. They have addresses that are either nonexistent — one lists a highway as its address — or coincide with the location of other entities, such as the BJP.
“These are clearly bogus accounts,” says S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner of India, who oversaw some of the democratic world’s biggest-ever votes between 2010 and 2012. “If Facebook can’t regulate them, it is either incompetent or complicit.”
The opacity doesn’t end with the phony details Indian advertisers are getting away with. OZY’s reporting shows that disclaimers identifying political advertisers vanish the moment the Facebook post is shared by a user, after which the company says it treats ads as “organic content.” Given that Facebook’s model relies on shares to spread any message exponentially, this means that most viewers of a political ad might never know it has been paid for, or by whom. That’s even more worrying if — as a recent Wall Street Journal article claims — Facebook’s India leadership has in some cases chosen to ignore the company’s own hate speech guidelines for posts by people close to the BJP.
“Facebook has an interest in its content going viral, and it doesn’t give a damn whether it’s truthful, false … whether it’s propaganda,” says Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, co-author of The Real Face of Facebook in India, a 2019 book on the proliferation of fake, hateful, and misleading news and posts on the social media platform. Facebook has responded to these charges by insisting that it is committed to cracking down on misuse and to strengthening its standards.
The worst part? As with the 2016 presidential election, we might not fully know about ways in which the platform is misused until it’s too late. “This is the tyranny of the algorithm,” says Guha Thakurta.
I pass monkeys and cross a famous central Delhi temple dedicated to the Hindu god Hanuman before entering a muddy lane where I’m looking for the office of BlueKraft Digital Foundation. The company owns two Facebook pages — The True Picture and New India Junction — that have together spent $30,000 since February 2019 on pro-Modi advertisements.
There’s no BlueKraft sign at the address it has listed with Facebook. A biometric machine outside the entrance door for employees to mark their attendance is the only tell that I’m at an office. OZY had not received any response to its request for an interview with Hitesh Jain, a director of the company (per its records), so I decided to visit the firm myself.
On a winter morning earlier this year, two men are at the office — a security officer and a member of the company’s administration team. They speak to me only through a crack in the door, not letting me in. They say Jain isn’t around. But while the security officer tells me that Akhilesh Mishra, the company CEO, is in the office, the administration person says Mishra is away.
What I encountered at the company’s office offers a window into other curious facets of BlueKraft’s operations. The company’s ties with the BJP aren’t hidden. Jain is also the spokesperson of the party’s Mumbai city branch, and Bluekraft has published four books authored by Modi. Yet, while the company website lists campaigns to de-stress children and promote yoga, it strangely makes no mention of the Facebook ads.
The BJP insists it has nothing to hide. “We are transparent about our digital advertising spend,” Amit Malviya, chief of the BJP’s national IT and social media team, told us when we first spoke with him. He did not answer a question about whether the BJP funds other companies or platforms to put out advertisements on its behalf.
But the company details that BlueKraft has shared with India’s ministry of corporate affairs suggest that it’s unlikely the firm has spent its own money on the pro-Modi Facebook propaganda.
The amount it has paid for those ads would have exhausted 75% of the company’s total paid-up capital of $40,000, according to its records, reviewed by OZY.
Still, BlueKraft at least has a physical presence.
In a detailed statement responding to OZY’s questions, Facebook said “political advertisers already go through an extensive authorization process before they can run an ad.” In India, that process requires advertisers to “submit an Indian government-issued ID and either a Voter ID number or the Indian Permanent Account Number (PAN).” The PAN is a tax identification number. Additionally, Facebook said, advertisers must provide a “mail-deliverable street address,” a phone number and business email.
Some of these conditions are stricter than in the US, where new advertisers don’t need to submit phone numbers while registering with Facebook, says Damon McCoy, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at New York University. McCoy led a team of researchers that recently carried out a yearlong audit of political advertisements on Facebook in America.
But the three biggest proxy Indian political spenders on Facebook — ‘Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat’, ‘Nation With NaMo’ and, of course, ‘My First Vote For Modi’ — have all registered under the known address of another entity, the BJP. Collectively, these three alone have published more than 14,000 ads since February 2019, compared to 2,657 from the BJP’s official account, including several in the run-up to state elections in Delhi three months ago.
“The fact that Facebook has not held them to account on their own transparency norms shows that Facebook is willing to bend its rules,” alleges Bhushan. Facebook has repeatedly rejected charges of political bias.
Malviya did not respond to detailed questions from OZY on whether these platforms indeed operate from the BJP’s national headquarters or if they’re misrepresenting that information, and why, if that’s the case, the party hasn’t complained to Facebook.
Other major pro-Modi proxy advertisers — ‘Phir Ek Baar Imaandar Sarkaar’, ‘Aghadi Bighadi’ and ‘Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat’ — are not reachable on their phone numbers either.
But here’s the twist: Not being traceable at the phone numbers they’ve provided, even as they continue to push new ads, isn’t a violation of Facebook norms, our investigation shows. Facebook has confirmed to OZY that the phone numbers provided by ad spenders in India only need to be “reachable at the time of submission” of their application to advertise.
In other words, you can buy a prepaid SIM card, give that phone number to Facebook, list a random address that you know exists and so is “mail-deliverable,” and get authorisation for political advertising. You can then stop using that SIM card and become untraceable at the address and phone number you’ve shared with Facebook. And technically, you haven’t broken any of the social media company’s rules.
All of this, say analysts, raises questions about the sincerity behind Facebook’s transparency rules for political advertising. “All these attempts that are being made by Facebook to give an impression that … we are concerned about how political advertising is put on Facebook, we want transparency, in my opinion, is just an eyewash,” says Guha Thakurta. “This is more a public relations and image-building exercise.”
When OZY shared details of all these hard-to-track proxy advertisers with Facebook, the firm said it would review each of these cases. “We are always looking to make our products stronger, especially when it comes to electoral or political ads on Facebook,” it said through a spokesperson.
But it took six months after OZY flagged these dubious platforms for Facebook to remove ads from Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat, My First Vote For Modi, Phir Ek Baar Imaandar Sarkar, Distoy Farak Shivshahi Parat and Aghadi Bighadi — acknowledging that they violated its advertising norms — in August.
And other high-spending proxy platforms like Nation With Namo — just as untraceable as Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat or My First Vote For Modi — remain active on Facebook.
In the meantime, there’s growing evidence that Facebook’s loose verification checks are being utilised by dubious advertisers in the US too. The team of researchers led by McCoy found more than 19,000 political advertisements, worth $3.8 million, that ran with misleading disclaimers in the year leading up to June 2019. In many of these cases, the same ad appeared to have been bought in a coordinated way by seemingly different “inauthentic groups,” the researchers concluded.
The approach is different: In India, the dubious, untraceable advertisers are among the top spenders on Facebook, whereas in the US, they so far appear to be maintaining a more low-key profile for the most part. Those that are more prominent, such as the Epoch Times — among President Donald Trump’s biggest supporters on Facebook — are also actual organizations, though their ownership and funding patterns are opaque.
But the fact that a similar pattern of deception is playing out in the world’s two largest democracies worries McCoy. The US is headed toward a presidential election that will — because of the coronavirus pandemic — depend more on social media platforms and digital campaigning than any vote before. “My hope is that they [Facebook] will improve their vetting of political advertisers,” he says, but adds that “it’s unclear how well” it will do that.
Yet poor vetting might be only part of the problem. It’s a scenario very different from what was promised by the tech giant two years ago.
When Facebook introduced mandatory disclaimers on political ads in the summer of 2018, Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management, called it a “new standard for transparency in digital advertising.” The company was responding to criticism for the way advertisements purchased by a Russian political influence operation favouring Trump had flourished on Facebook ahead of the 2016 presidential election, potentially misleading millions of voters.
But try sharing an ad with someone on Facebook, and the disclaimer vanishes. It’s no magic trick. That’s exactly as Facebook has designed its disclaimer policy. “If someone sees and chooses to share the ad, the shared version of the ad will be treated as an organic piece of content and will no longer show the disclaimer,” says Facebook’s rule on sharing political ads.
It declined to respond to OZY’s questions on whether that allows campaigns with sophisticated troll armies to share political ads in a way that would deny most viewers a chance to know they’ve been paid for. But for the Modi propaganda machine, that’s gold, and it enables the spread of the perception of the prime minister’s organic popularity, as opposed to a carefully crafted image-building exercise on which hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent. “Voters don’t know that what they’re seeing is not organic content,” says Quraishi, the country’s former top election commissioner.
By having untraceable proxies advertise for them on Facebook, political parties and candidates can also sidestep campaign financing laws, says Quraishi, by not needing to declare those expenses in spending declarations ahead of elections.
That can change, Quraishi says, if investigative agencies and the election commission probe links between these dodgy platforms and the party they appear to be advertising for. But Bhushan says he isn’t holding his breath on the government’s investigative agencies acting against the ruling party. Political parties, Bhushan says, must also be brought under the ambit of the Right to Information law — India’s equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act — to increase transparency about their funding and spending.
And for Facebook? “The key steps are improved vetting of political advertisers and improved detection of unvetted advertisers that are running political ads,” says McCoy.
The upcoming US presidential elections represent the tech giant’s next big test and for the moment, Facebook’s biggest commitment — made by CEO Mark Zuckerberg in early September — is limited to blocking fresh political ads in the final week before the Nov. 3 vote. That promise followed weeks of criticism that the firm had allowed its platform to be used for misinformation, including during the protests that followed the death of George Floyd in June.
It’s a 360-degree shift from a few years ago, when the internet and social media were seen as beacons of hope and allies of the oppressed, says Guha Thakurta. Now, the same tools that were credited with helping end decades-old dictatorships in the Arab world are being accused of aiding increasingly authoritarian regimes, like Modi’s.
“This,” says Guha Thakurta, “is really the dark, ugly, evil side of social media.”
Update: Facebook will no longer allow political advertisers to run ads on its platform if their phone number, email or website stopsbeing “active or valid,” the social media firm told OZY Thursday. It announced the change a day after OZY’s investigation revealed how hidden Facebook rules were enabling political proxy advertisers for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to emerge as the country’s biggest spenders — while being untraceable.
All illustrations by Doug Chayka.
This article was originally published on OZY. OZY and The Wire partner to bring you premium global features.