Facebook allowed a company owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Group to promote BJP in several election campaigns through surrogate advertisements, found The Reporters’ Collective in its investigation.

These advertisements lit the fuse of anti-Muslim sentiments, tommy-gunned BJP’s opponents and critics through lies, and eulogised Narendra Modi and his government.

It is the first part of a series born out of a year-long investigation by The Collective into the influence of Facebook’s advertising policy on elections in India. 

All the surrogate advertisements were planted as ‘news’ by Reliance Jio’s subsidiary company, New Emerging World of Journalism Limited (NEWJ), through Facebook. Reliance pumped money into NEWJ at near-zero interest rate. NEWJ kept burning that money in buying advertising space on Facebook and other social media. It earned next to nothing from publishing news or advertisements. The director and original promoter of the company had close family ties with Reliance and BJP.

Over the past year, The Collective along with ad.watch, a research project studying political ads on social media, analysed data of all the 5,36,070 political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 through November 2020, to assess the influence of Facebook’s political advertising policies on elections in India.

In those 22 months, which included the high-octane 2019 national election and nine state elections, Facebook’s advertising platform systematically undercut political competition in the world’s largest electoral democracy, giving unfair advantage to the BJP over its competitors.
 The social media company claims to verify all political advertisers in India and have put in place measures to curb misinformation and hate speech. But this and other parts of the series show they were dud. With 240 million people using Facebook, India is the company’s largest market. Incidentally, Facebook had invested $5.7 billion in Reliance Jio last year.

Facebook is now Meta but name change doesn’t erase its past. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, BJP fielded Hindu ascetic Pragya Thakur charged with terrorism. As soon as BJP picked Thakur as its candidate, Facebook showed an advertisement run by NEWJ that mimicked the looks of a news report with a false claim in the headline: “BJP gives Lok Sabha Ticket to Sadhvi Pragya, who is acquitted of charges in Malegaon blast case”. 

The advertisement that wrongly proclaimed Thakur has been “acquitted” of the charge of lending her scooter to carry out the blast that killed six in Maharashtra’s Muslim-majority town got 300,000 views in a day. Thakur, who is still facing trial, won the election while out on bail.
But the Election Commission, whose primary mandate is to secure the integrity of elections, has been caught avoiding its responsibility. 

Publishing surrogate or ghost advertisements that favour a political candidate but are not directly funded or authorised by that candidate is a crime under the Indian Penal Code. But the Election Commission applies this rule only if such advertisements are placed in print or television electronic media, not in digital forums such as Facebook – a fall from the times the Commission pushed boundaries to bring in model code of conduct in elections and prided in being ruthless disciplinarian with politicians.

Make time, find a seat and click here to read the first part of the investigative series by The Reporters’ Collective member Kumar Sambhav and Nayantara Ranganathan, a researcher at ad.watch, published in English by Al Jazeera.­