How a shadowy Meta, YouTube black market clouds India election integrity

Some of India’s top social election ad spenders are Facebook pages bought and sold in violation of the company’s rules, an Al Jazeera investigation reveals.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, left, speaks next to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. A rare visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this weekend has captivated his extensive fan club in the area and commanded the attention of major U.S. technology companies eager to extend their reach into a promising overseas market. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, speaks next to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook in Menlo Park, California, Sunday, September 27, 2015 [Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

New Delhi, India – In 2019, political consultant Tushar Giri found himself in a room with a distraught veteran leader from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The politician was a five-time legislator and, until a few days before that meeting, had been a chief ministerial candidate from a state. But he had lost in state legislature elections. The leader’s team, Giri recalled, “had no idea” how he had lost. As they plotted his political resurrection after the defeat, they had one clear demand of Giri, he said. “The first thing they said was, ‘We need to buy some shadow Facebook pages and dent the narrative.’”

Giri plucked out just the Facebook page they were looking for: Built and run by his firm, it focused on the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian talking points while masquerading as a current-affairs dump. The page amassed nearly 800,000 followers before it became defunct after the BJP unceremoniously retired the leader from electoral politics.

Then came the 2024 election campaign, and Giri found the perfect buyer for that page: a political turncoat in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh who had switched over to the BJP from the opposition and was now looking to find his footing among far-right voters. With a new look and feel – but with the old posts still in place – this page has now become a vehicle to promote the Madhya Pradesh politician, a former federal minister.

As India’s mammoth seven-phase election comes to an end with voting on June 1, an Al Jazeera investigation, and recent studies by researchers from nonprofit human rights monitoring and advocacy groups, reveal an elaborate black market of such Facebook pages, bought and sold to influence the country’s voters by bypassing the tech giant’s scrutiny of political advertising.

Rules set by Meta, Facebook’s parent firm, disallow users from any “attempt to or successfully sell, buy, or exchange” accounts, or operating under false or stolen identities. Yet the investigation shows that these community standards have been routinely violated through India’s months-long election campaign. Those violations have, in turn, allowed the owners of these pages to escape Meta’s scrutiny of new political advertisers as they promote posts that target religious minorities, peddle conspiracy theories and spread election disinformation.

In India, Facebook’s largest market with over 314 million users, these surrogate pages on Facebook have become lifelines of political campaigns, especially during PR crises, say insiders. “It is a parallel business model during elections,” said Giri, “and we all know people in our circles who have raised these pages from scratch for buyers”.

Giri’s firm runs nearly 40 business pages, ready for sale. A recent study by the United States-based watchdog Tech Transparency Project, which tracks technology companies, also confirmed the Indian Facebook black market.

While it is difficult to put a number on the scale of the business, consider this: Nearly half of the top 20 spenders on political adverts in the last 90 days are surrogate pages that are run by organisations that hide their identity, a review of Meta’s Ad Library by Al Jazeera found.

The most obvious driver of this black market, say experts, is the purpose it serves for political campaigns in evading Meta’s scrutiny. Before running political ads on Facebook, advertisers need to submit a government-issued ID and receive a piece of mail in the country where they intend to run the ads. By buying existing page accounts that have cleared these verification steps, campaigns can circumvent Facebook’s review mechanism.

“It is not surprising that surrogate pages black market is rampant now, and while general content moderation is a different debate, the companies are straight-up making money out of these adverts,” said Prateek Waghre, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit that lobbies for online rights of citizens.

Yet, there are other benefits too that campaigns derive from such a black market.

Modi’s campaign or spam?

Modi often ranks among the world’s most popular leaders, with the highest approval ratings among peers from major countries, in global polls. But even his campaign for re-election from the city of Varanasi, which votes in the final phase of India’s election on June 1, is taking the help of surrogate pages.

Shubham Mishra, a regional BJP leader tasked with handling social media strategy in the constituency for Modi’s campaign, believes that the constant showering of “hard political content” can become monotonous for the public. Facebook pages that purport to be general news or current affairs hubs but routinely inject pro-Modi messaging in between other content, help. “Back-to-back posting on [Modi’s] activity can be seen as spam by voters but surrogate pages are very effective,” Mishra said.

For the current campaign, Mishra said, Modi’s team did not need to buy any surrogate pages. Instead, it has relied on pages acquired previously. “We have well-established third-party pages, run with private agencies that are loyal to us for over seven to eight years now,” he said.

“A lot of things that we cannot say, or post, from [the PM’s or party’s handles], we run them through surrogate pages in Varanasi.”

Using such shadow pages also helps campaigns skirt campaign finance restrictions, said Hamraj Singh, a political consultant. “A ‘fan page’ can push anything and the candidate can always disown it,” he said. “And the promotion cost doesn’t reflect in a candidate’s expenses.”

Many of these pages, as in the case of the ones Mishra is overseeing for Varanasi, target specific districts or constituencies. The rate for a page depends on several factors, including the page’s reach, engagement, and, importantly, the demography of followers, say insiders. For instance, if the page – at the point of sale – has tens of thousands of followers from a geography that’s helpful to the buyer campaign, the seller can charge more than if the existing followers are from another part of the country.

Typically, a Facebook business page with 100,000 followers, can bring the seller between $700 and $1,200, Al Jazeera’s investigation and interviews with those behind such pages show. But a page that checks all the boxes and has a million followers could fetch up to $24,000. Rates are similar for Instagram handles.

To be sure, the BJP is far from alone in using such pages. Pages favouring opposition parties, including the Congress, the Biju Janata Dal and All India Trinamool Congress, are also among major spenders on Meta. However, BJP-aligned pages dominate the top 20 spenders.

And in recent months, independent researchers say they have found a particularly coordinated effort on the far-right of India’s political spectrum to exploit this black market.

Million-dollar far-right network

During the 2019 election, Facebook publicly announced that it was shutting down 687 pages that engaged in what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB), allegedly “linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress”. The Congress is India’s principal opposition party. In 2019, Facebook also removed 15 pages, groups and accounts that, it said, were supporting the ruling BJP.

But five years later, that challenge of dodgy surrogate accounts has only grown. In the run-up to the 2024 elections, a study (PDF) by the India Civil Watch International (ICWI), Eko, a corporate accountability organisation, and The London Story, an Indian diaspora-led civil society group, exposed far-right networks of pages that have pushed content favouring the BJP.

The networks of pages coordinated with each other, showing a “consistency of derogatory language, Islamophobic tropes, and the promotion of divisive narratives targeting opposition leaders and minority groups”, the study said.

One of those networks, Ulta Chasma, amassed 10 million interactions just in the 90 days in the run-up to the national polls, gaining over 34 million views on its videos. Ulta Chasma pages often figure among the top 20 ad buyers on Facebook. In all, researchers identified 22 of the top 100 ad spenders as far-right pages supporting Modi and the BJP, with a total spend of more than $1m.

Al Jazeera tried contacting the overall top 20 ad spenders on Facebook – across party lines – on the phone numbers that the page owners provided to the social platform. They were all inaccessible. And the websites, in many cases – such as Ulta Chasma – are shells with plain front-ends but no content on them.

Between May 8 and 13, ICWI, Eko and The London Story tried an experiment: In the middle of India’s election, they created a series of AI-manipulated advertisements, containing election disinformation and calls for killing Muslims and opposition leaders. They submitted these to Meta’s Ad Library to test its mechanisms for detecting and blocking political content, targeting districts that were about to vote.

Meta approved 14 out of 22 ads, despite its policies against allowing posts that promote hate speech, misinformation, violence and incitement. The civil society groups behind the ads decided not to actually run them after Meta had approved them.

In a statement to Al Jazeera, Meta said its processes involve other layers of scrutiny that those ads would have had to go through before they could be published.

“As part of our ads review process – which includes both automated and human reviews – we have several layers of analysis and detection, both before and after an ad goes live,” said a Meta spokesperson in an emailed response to questions. “Because the authors immediately deleted the ads in question, we cannot comment on the claims made.”

YouTube’s troubles

Meanwhile, Henry Peck, a campaigner on digital threats at Global Witness, an international NGO, decided to test YouTube’s preparations for India’s election. With over 460 million users, YouTube is far ahead of its contemporary platforms – and India is its biggest market.

The investigation – Access Now, another nonprofit, also participated – submitted 48 ads to YouTube in English, Hindi and Telugu, containing content meant to suppress voter turnout among women and youth through disinformation, and inciting violence against minorities. YouTube approved every single ad for publication. Before the ads were published, Global Witness and Access Now withdrew the ads.

“YouTube has put profit before people and looked to boost their revenue during elections and protect this really large market [India],” said Peck. “But they are not upholding their own standards or their responsibility to users. They are providing a disservice.”

“We are talking about blatant disinformation and depending on the budget, you can reach millions of voters,” added Shruti Narayan, Asia Pacific policy fellow at Access Now.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson from Google – which owns YouTube – told Al Jazeera that “none one of these ads ever ran on” YouTube and the findings do not show a lack of protections against election misinformation in India. However, the spokesperson added that the platform would use the test to see “if there are ways we can further bolster our protections”.

The spokesperson said that after the initial approval, “ads are still subject to several layers of reviews, including human evaluations as needed, to ensure the content complies with our policies”.

“The advertiser here deleted the ads in question before any of our routine enforcement reviews could take place,” the Google spokesperson said.

Yet, Peck noted that when Global Witness tested election disinformation in English and Spanish ahead of the US midterm elections in 2022, YouTube rejected all the ads at the first stage itself and suspended the host channel. In February this year, both Meta and Google, alongside major technology companies, signed a pact to voluntarily adopt “reasonable precautions” to prevent artificial intelligence tools from being used to disrupt democratic elections around the world.

They are not doing enough to live up to that commitment, suggested Narayan of Access Now.

“It is neither their ignorance nor the sheer scale of the problem,” said Narayan. “It is just a question of prioritising.”

Source: Al Jazeera