A new twist to the social media has occurred with fake news coming into the picture. On the face of it both BJP and the Congress have suffered in a big crackdown on fake accounts for alleged “inauthentic behaviour” before the Lok Sabha polls. Facebook announced on April 1 that it has removed more than 700 pages as well as groups and accounts from India. Those taken down include associates of the Congress IT Cell and Silver Touch Technologies, a company which has worked for the government and the BJP. But the action is not related to fake news but what are described as fake accounts. Are the two parties going to be hurt or are their operations going to continue by using new avenues?
Yet WhatsApp has unveiled its Checkpoint Tipline where people can check the authenticity of information received as a precautionary measure. Launched by PROTO, an India-based skilling start-up, the tipline will create a database of rumours to study misinformation for Checkpoint. People will be able to communicate what they perceive as rumours or fake news.
Facebook said it detected “coordinated inauthentic behavior in the region prior to the elections in India” and removed these pages in four separate takedowns because of their desire to deceive users about their identity, but not because of their content. Facebook has also tried to resolve issues by promising to take corrective measures.
“We’re looking here for pages, groups that are designed to look independent, but are actually linked to an organisation or political party and trying to conceal or hide this link”, Nathaniel Gleicher, Head of Cybersecurity Policy, told an Indian newspaper on telephone.
Giving examples, he said that some accounts pretended to be a news page but were actually being run by a political party, some being run by fake accounts or clusters of pages posting on Instagram and WhatsApp as well.
Among those removed were 15 groups, pages, and accounts linked to the IT firm Silver Touch Technologies, including a page called The India Eye, which is popular with the BJP voter base. The India Eye had nearly 2.6 million followers, which is much larger compared to the pages linked to the others taken down. The group had 15,000 members, while the Instagram account had 30,000 followers. The group also spent around $70,000 (about Rs 50 lakhs) on advertisements. It appears to be a big operation and the political parties affected and the other entities are quite adept at taking alternative and corrective measures. That is the perception at present.
It is in this light that the Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, set up 500 rallies at different venues all over the country via video conferencing with large TV screens an audience of up to 2,000 people in more than one hour of question –answer format. Will he replicate the format to reach out to a million people at one go, especially on Sunday, March 31. He plans to address 125 rallies in the coming 50 days.
Facebook also removed 687 pages and accounts linked to individuals associated with the Congress IT Cell. Gleicher said they later reached out to the Congress and explained to them why this behaviour was problematic and violated the social network’s policies. A Congress social media head said that they would reach out to Facebook.
Silver Touch Technologies developed the NAMO app and is “empanelled with Central Government, some state governments and their supplementary programmes delivering IT solutions”, including the National Informatics Centre (NIC), Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Government of Uttar Pradesh, according to its website.
Mr. Gleicher told Reuters that Silver Touch Technologies was “associated with ” a mobile app promoted by BJP and its IT head, Amit Malviya, who however, told the same agency that the party and the app had “nothing to do with Silver Touch”.
The Facebook account for My Nation, owned by Asianet News Group which also owns Republic TV, was also taken down. Its Editor-in-chief, Abhijit Majumder, said that Facebook took down his page without warning, but now a “senior executive” has told him over WhatsApp that they “are resolving the matter as soon as possible” and that they conceded that “we should have been given a heads up. We have told Facebook that this is a verified handle. This was really, really bizarre”.
A BJP social media volunteer from Lucknow, Santosh Srivastava, said that Facebook took down 11 of his pages which accumulated to 250 million likes, including “I am with Indian” with 4 million likes. He said he has been devoting time and ad promotion money into these pages for almost six years and that they were not only supporting BJP but also “pro-India” pages.
According to the Congress, no official pages run by them were taken down. “Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected. In the meantime, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down,” the party’s official Twitter handle tweeted.
A former Congress IT Cell Vice President, Shilpi Singh Parihar, who left the position four months ago, said that her page, Rahul for PM, with around 350,000 followers was taken down without warning. She joined it as administrator of the page in 2017, and has four other party related pages, but does not take any money from the party.
In total, Facebook says there were 138 pages and 549 Facebook accounts involved in this particular takedown and around 206,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages. Pages mentioned are Jo Feku, ‘Baba Bhrashtachari’; content shared included asking voters to choose wisely and pick the Congress party in the elections. This network spent around $39,000 (Rs 27 lakh) for ads on Facebook and it was paid for in Indian rupees.
What are the alternatives to Facebook pages, though resolution of the issues are in the air. The BJP has drawn up a plan for 125 rallies all over India in the next 50 days. He says he has not taken a single holiday in the past five years and devoted these to his work. His sincerity and hard work rest on these. But he might have promised good days, but the proverbial “achhe din” have been dropped from his vocabulary in the year 2019. Is it because he accuses the Congress of inventing idioms and making tall promises? But there is no doubt that the Modi juggernaut has been unleashed in full measure.
Just a day before April One, he held a nationwide video conference with 50 large screen TVs at 50 venues in the country from north to south, east to west and a question-answer format with the overly faithful saffron-robed followers, heaping praise on him and glorifying him as the master of a show, with several more to follow to build up a great image. He is basking in the limelight and glory of the hot summer and sunshine.
Lalit Sethi is a Journalist of long standing and a commentator on Political and Social Issues.