In a blogpost, Facebook stated that it had removed hundreds of pages and accounts linked to inauthentic behaviour, with analyses showing malpractices on both sides of the spectrum.
- As part of its commitment to the Election Commission, it removed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups with inauthentic behaviour from its platform
- The Facebook post mentioned 687 pages with connection to the Indian National Congress with criticism of PM Modi and BJP
- Also mentioned were 15 pages linked to an Indian IT firm Silver Touch Technologies, which included the Indian Eye and spread spiteful content
- Silver Touch Technologies is the firm which created the PM Modi’s Namo App
Facebook, as part of its commitment to the Election Commission, is taking strong action to regulate political advertisements to address issue of spreading misinformation on the platform.
In a fresh political controversy linked to social media practices, the Silicon-valley giant removed many pages, accounts and groups for inauthentic behaviour as part of its initiative for India’s General Elections.
Facebook has over 300 million users in India and the social media platform has been increasingly and explicitly used by political parties to spread their narrative. The controversial pages reportedly served purposes for both the biggest parties of India.
The Facebook action can be construed as significant as it
eliminates influence from the pre-election campaign landscape, less than two weeks before polling begins.
687 Pages linked to INC
Facebook said, in a blogpost, that it had
removed 687 Pages and accounts linked to the Indian National Congress, for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook said:
“We removed 687 Facebook Pages and accounts — the majority of which had already been detected and suspended by our automated systems — that engaged in coordinated inauthentic behaviour in India and were linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC),”
The statement said that the step was on the basis of the behaviour and not the content. Facebook said its investigation had found fake accounts spreading criticism of PM Modi and the BJP.
The blog mentioned that the pages and accounts removed had spent around USD 39,000 for ads on Facebook with payments made in INR between August 2014 and March 2019.
Facebook said it had
removed hundreds of pages run by “individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC).” It did not name the cell, but as per Digital Forensic Research Labs, the evidence suggests the cell is most likely based in Gujarat.
The pages reportedly used the same page image as that of the Gujarat Congress IT Cell’s ‘Cyber Army’. Many of the pages taken down were dedicated to different small local towns in Gujarat, which indicates granular geographic targeting, as per DFR Labs.
One of the pages removed was called Jo Feku – with over 15,000 likes and followers. The page carried satirical content aimed at ridiculing PM Modi and the BJP government. Most pages were created before the December 2017 Gujarat assembly elections and have good engagement numbers with more than 200,000 likes.
DFR analysis understood that the Gu
jarat INC Cell was more transparent in its affiliation. Pages explicitly invited users to join the IT Cell and the content was more satirical in nature, with mostly cartoons and memes.
Congress’ remark on allegations
With the news of 687 Congress pages being
removed by Facebook gathering steam, Congress denied that any of its official pages were in question. Spokesperson Manish Tewari said:
“We will have to check the veracity of the report. I don’t think any news organisation can claim that what they print is gospel, we have the right to check what has been published,”
This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected.
In the mean time, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down.
— Congress (@INCIndia) April 1, 2019
The Silver Touch connection – Read BJP
Facebook blog post mentioned 15 Facebook Pages, Groups and accounts linked to individuals linked with an Indian IT firm, Silver Touch were among those removed. The pages spent around USD 70,000 for ads paid for in INR between June 2014 and February 2019.
The take down included a pro-BJP asset called “The India Eye”, with over 2 million followers at the time of removal. According to reporting from The Wire, ‘The India Eye’ is connected to an Indian IT company Silver Touch Technologies, which the FB post also mentioned. Silver Touch also created Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official app.
The Silver Touch pages used a combination of authentic and fake accounts to share content around the upcoming elections, the BJP and alleged
misconduct of political opponents like Congress. The pro-BJP assets are reported to have had content more spiteful in nature with higher engagement than the INC-linked pages.
In 2018, open-source fact-checking outlet AltNews had reported that theindiaeye.com was hosted on Silver Touch servers. Silver Touch managers
denied any connection with the website or the Facebook page. But now Facebook’s statement has attributed the page to “individuals associated with” Silver Touch.
DFR noted that, the page went through several name changes in the first two weeks of its existence having been created in 2016. This suggests that the operation was experimenting with branding.
In the past, several regional media outlets have reported on the page spreading false information related to Indian politics. However, this hasn’t been able to dampen the engagements on posts which instead experienced an uptick from June 2018 onward.
The highly notorious page engaged users with partisan and polarizing content. It posed as an independent outlet, while serving the interests of the ruling party.
The Congress IT Cell used satirical caricatures. Despite the creative strategy, the pages had less engagement compared to The India Eye’s page.
Alarming for Indian political scenario
troublesome is the inclination of Indian political parties to engage in large-scale inauthentic behaviour to push their narrative across to the masses. The fact that such activity can be attributed to both sides presents an alarming issue.
Using such tactics construes that, in the age of tweets and likes, such unethical actions are increasingly being considered vital to political campaigning. When it is the political parties that back such activities, it presents a tough task for the voters who need to distinguish between genuine and fake content.
This is reminiscent of a similar controversy from October 2017 when it was alleged that Congress was using bots to boost Rahul Gandhi’s following on twitter. Analysis had found that alleged ‘bots’ with a Russian, Kazakh or Indonesian characteristic were routinely retweeting Gandhi’s tweets.
Facebook’s takedowns illustrate the intensity of India’s online battle ahead of the election.
The India Eye, with its millions-strong following, was run from a company with links to the BJP. The regional network was linked to the Congress party and its IT cells.
With both the takedown’s showing covert assets pushing political narratives, it seems that such behaviour is an accepted action for Indian political parties to ‘look to inauthentic amplification as a necessary tool in the broader campaigning toolkit’.
This is surely a big
disappointment for the interested and neutral voter. Also, it serves the purpose of undermining the real strength of a democracy as more and more voter minds are being corrupted through social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Twitter.
- Analysis by DFR Labs concluded that the INC pages were linked to their Gujarat IT cell and were extensively used during the 2017 Gujarat State assembly elections
- Silver Touch Technologies linked pages were pro-BJP and were more vitriolic in the nature of its content, with a specific mention to one page The Indian Eye
- In the past, The Indian Eye has been reported by a number of media houses to have developed and spread fake news
- This presents an increasingly alarming situation for voters as political parties leverage unethical social media enabled campaigning to spread fake content
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