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Far-Right Shadow Advertisers Dominate Indian Poll Spending on Meta for Pro-Modi, Anti-Muslim Push

In a new report, three organisations, Ekō, India Civil Watch International and Foundation the London Story, conducted an investigation into the Meta Ad Library to look into the background of shadow advertisers during a 90-day period ending March 25.
A Modi ad posted on Facebook on April 18, 2024. Photo: Facebook/Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar

New Delhi: In a new report, a group of international civil society organisations found that “far-right shadow advertisers” have spent roughly one-fourth of the total Indian election ad expenditure on Meta platforms ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha elections. These ads promote Prime Minister Narendra Modi and express rabid anti-Muslim sentiments.

Researchers from three organisations, Ekō, India Civil Watch International (ICWI) and Foundation the London Story (TLS), conducted an investigation into the Meta Ad Library to look into the background of shadow advertisers during a 90-day period which ended on March 25.

The report titled, Slander, Lies, and Incitement: India’s million dollar election meme network, aspires to show how the shadow advertisers are “exploiting the virtual public sphere of information and pushing a coordinated disinformation campaign”, under the nose of the Election Commission of India.

Based on the study’s methodology, the researchers analysed the top 100 ad buyers over a 90-day period, pinpointing 22 shadow pages.

They then scrutinised the online content of these 22 groups to validate their far-right nature, cross-referencing with recent reports and those from the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This process led to the identification of 15 pages and 36 advertisements, notably amplified in March, just before the initial election phase.

The study describes shadow advertisers as “undisclosed campaigners whose existence and trail of money is hidden from the public view”. The researchers claimed that none of the phone numbers provided on the pages’ ad disclaimers led to any response.

The study distinguished shadow campaigning from surrogate campaigning, noting that the former involves paid promotional campaigns identified through Goods and Services Tax Identity Numbers or similar incorporation identifiers.

As per the report, during the 90-day period, all advertisers in India spent around Rs 40.7 crore on political and election-related advertisements on Meta platforms. The top 100 ad buyers bought over 75% of the ads.

The 22 shadow pages spent Rs 8.83 crore on advertisements for “BJP, and its leaders, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi”. “This group of far-right shadow advertisers spent nearly 22% of the total sum of election advertisements during this 90-day period,” the report said. These pages received over 23 million interactions on these advertisements.

The biggest spender among them was a publisher named, Ulta Chashma, as per the report, which spent Rs 1.89 crore during the 90-day period for over 430 ads. This publisher is also associated with a network of nine pages that share ads featuring memes targeting opposition leaders with inflammatory and anti-Muslim content. It also posted ads that painted the farmers’ movement as being ‘Khalistanis’, by labelling them as “separatist, affluent, violent, and anti-nationalist”.

One of the advertisements examined in the report is also by a publisher, Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar, which targeted The Wire’s Arfa Khanum Sherwani by calling her a “so-called journalist” and saying that she was “putting her masters/bosses on the throne” by superimposing with an image of Rahul Gandhi.

As per the report, these shadow campaigns can make election campaigning funding opaque, allowing political parties to not adhere to funding limits.

The Election Commission of India requires all political advertisements, even on social media and internet websites, to be pre-certified. Further, all prohibitions on political advertising also apply to social media.

The report warned that the ambiguity allows “these advertisers to operate in the shadows, making it challenging to explicitly connect the publishers of these advertisements to any specific political party”.

Further, the researchers said that the shadow advertisers “are potentially circumventing and breaking the regulations of the Election Commission of India by promoting corrupt practices by spreading false information, and promotion or attempted promotion of feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of the citizens of India on grounds of religion, race, caste, community, or language by a candidate”.

Criticising Meta for allowing the pages to flourish despite explicit violations of its rules of disclosure and source of funding, the report said that despite “on-paper commitments, the “virtual town spaces are comfortably ceded to the highest bidders, and voices of representation are drowned in the noise created by shadow campaigners”.

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