A media startup owned by Asia’s richest billionaire has been accused of helping India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win elections.
NEWJ, a subsidiary of Jio Platforms which is owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Group, has paid for a series of advertisements on Facebook, according to a media investigation by the Reporters’ Collective. The campaign helped push the BJP’s agenda on Indian social media just before the 2019 parliamentary elections in the country.
The investigation, which studied all 536,070 political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram between February 2019 and November 2020, revealed that Ambani’s NEWJ constantly published surrogate or ghost advertisements that favoured the BJP.
For instance, in one such ad, NEWJ falsely claimed that the BJP’s Pragya Thakur, a terror-accused Hindu supremacist leader who was contesting polls from Bhopal, had been exonerated of all charges. She is still under trial and has only got bail on medical grounds.
A surrogate or ghost advertisement is one that favours a political candidate but is not funded by or authorised by that person. Surrogate advertising is a crime in India.
What Is Ambani’s NEWJ?
NEWJ or New Emerging World of Journalism caters to social media users in India’s small towns and villages. In reality, it “buys advertisement space on Facebook and Instagram to publish videos which are political promotions but are dressed as news stories,” according to an Al Jazeera report.
NEWJ’s Facebook page published about 170 such advertisements before the 2019 elections.
Founded in 2018, NEWJ already claims that it is India’s “fastest-growing media tech” company. In its founding year itself, Reliance Industrial Investment and Holdings took over the firm with a 75% equity stake.
However, its ties with the ruling party could not be ignored. One of the company’s founders, Shalabh Upadhyay, who is also its editor-in-chief, is believed to have close ties with both BJP and Reliance.
His father Umesh Upadhyay is president and media director at Reliance Industries. Previously, he has worked as president of news at RIL-owned Network 18 group. One of India’s leading media groups, Network 18 runs a host of TV news channels across various languages. Shalabh Upadhyay’s uncle Satish Upadhyay is also a BJP leader and a former president of the party’s Delhi unit.
What does Facebook say?
Facebook’s parent company, Meta, told the Reporters’ Collective that it had been “uniform in taking down political advertisements.”
In any case, this isn’t a new phenomenon in India. In 2019, an analysis by AltNews found several pro-BJP-political advertisements on Facebook.
To promote “transparency,” the social media giant has tried to clamp down on such advertisements but has been uneven in its approach, according to the Reporters’ Collective.
“Only one page and 14 accounts that promoted the BJP were removed. Those were owned and operated by an IT firm called Silver Touch which had not formally declared its link with the BJP,” it said.