India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be many steps ahead of Facebook’s initiatives to stay transparent about the funding of political advertising. A secretive organisation reportedly managing its campaign appears to have successfully worked around the social media platform’s ad transparency measures for months.
The Association of Billion Minds (ABM), the alleged “personal election unit” of BJP president Amit Shah, the right-hand man of prime minister Narendra Modi, has spawned widespread on-the-ground and digital operations, an investigative report published by HuffPost India yesterday (April 04) reveals.
ABM’s wide reach includes management of at least eight popular Facebook pages that have pumped big money into online ads for the BJP. This includes Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat, which has over 300,000 likes and is the top spender on political Facebook ads so far in India, as well as Nation With Namo, which has over 1.1 million likes and laid out the third greatest political ad spend.
None of these eight Facebook pages, however, list ABM anywhere in the information about them. This is despite political ads now needing to include a disclaimer with contact information about who paid for them, according to the transparency initiative Facebook rolled out in India in recent months, ahead of the country’s general election.
ABM’s pages have also spread misinformation, such as doctored videos of opposition leaders that misrepresent what they say. This type of content makes ABM’s secretive nature all the more crucial. “This cluster of Facebook pages act as BJP mouthpieces, but allow the party to formally distance itself from the false information propagated by these pages,” HuffPost’s report reads.
Facebook’s political ad transparency initiatives exist in the UK and the US as well and have been criticised widely there for how they could be circumvented. A Vice News piece last year showed that its reporter successfully purchased ads that said they were paid for by the terrorist group ISIS. The Atlantic last October also reported how a shadowy company had simply used a surrogate buyer to hide its tracks.
Hence, the key question now is: what will Facebook do in the wake of the HuffPost report? Will it insist that pages supposedly linked to ABM undergo verification again? Will it revamp its ad transparency policies to make them more stringent? Quartz has sent Facebook a detailed questionnaire and will update the piece when it responds.
If Facebook receives evidence of the link to ABM, it could even decide to remove the pages for their engagement in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”—entities working together to misrepresent themselves in order to spread messaging. Earlier this week, Facebook removed over 1,000 pages from India and Pakistan for engaging in such behaviour, including many political pages by the BJP and the leading opposition Indian National Congress.
“If a company is running Facebook pages while denying that it’s doing so, that would be inauthentic behaviour by the pages,” Ben Nimmo, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Quartz. “It’s worth asking what accounts were being used to manage the pages, because that would indicate if there was a digital trail—were they fake accounts, or the accounts of company employees?”
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.