Facebook removes 687 pages and accounts linked to Congress IT Cell, BJP-associated Silver Touch for 'inauthentic behaviour'

Facebook removed a total of 700 accounts and pages in India that were posting partisan content on Indian politics.

Just last week, Facebook said that it removed a total of 2,632 pages, groups, and accounts from Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo, citing what it described as 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour'. Now, Facebook says it has also pulled 687 pages and accounts operating in India.

Facebook revealed in its blog that the removed pages and accounts engaged in 'coordinated inauthentic behaviour' in the country and were "linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC)".

“While the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our review found that it was connected to individuals associated with an INC (Indian National Congress) IT Cell,” Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Cybersecurity Policy at Facebook, said in a statement to Reuters.

Facebook removes 687 pages and accounts linked to Congress IT Cell, BJP-associated Silver Touch for inauthentic behaviour

Facebook says that the admins of these pages and accounts were posting about local news and political issues, including topics like the upcoming elections, candidate views, the Congress party and criticism of political opponents including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Further, these posts apparently bought around $39,000 worth of Facebook ads. The first ad ran in August 2014 and the most recent ad ran in March 2019.

One of the many posts Facebook removed from India.

One of the many posts Facebook removed from India.

Facebook said its investigation found that individuals used fake accounts and joined various groups to disseminate their content and increase engagement. Their posts included local news and criticism of political opponents such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Facebook said.

This revelation comes exactly 10 days before the General Elections kicks off on 11 April.

Additionally, Facebook says that it also removed 15 Pages, Groups and accounts that were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behaviour in India and were linked to individuals associated with an Indian IT firm called Silver Touch.

Asked what was Silver Touch’s link with politics, Gleicher said Facebook only knew it was an Indian IT firm that, among other things, worked for Modi’s BJP. The only link Facebook saw was that the company was associated with a mobile application promoted by Modi, Gleicher said, without elaborating. Silver Touch did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Calls to BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, went unanswered, according to Reuters. Facebook said it had also removed another 227 pages and 94 accounts in India for violating its policies on spam and misrepresentation.

One of the many posts Facebook removed from India.

One of the many posts Facebook removed from India.

Facebook Pages that have been removed

Some of the pages removed include Congress Gujarat IT Cell pages and The India Eye according to detailed research by DFRLabs.

The India Eye: This is a pro-BJP page which Facebook has now removed from its platform as well as Instagram, which had posts criticising Congress president Rahul Gandhi. "These were significant assets: by the time of the takedown, the Facebook page had over 2 million followers. According to The Wire, “The India Eye” was connected to an Indian IT company called Silver Touch Technologies Ltd, which also created Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official app," said the report. According to the report, the most engaged post showed a polarising narrative of one of Modi's speeches on corruption.

An archived post of 'The India Eye' which had a lot of engagement.

An archived post of 'The India Eye' which had a lot of engagement.

A detailed investigation by AltNews, which was done in February this year, clearly showed the connection between The India Eye and the NaMo app. After following the activities of a Twitter handle @HemanNamo, which was promoting The India Eye during its initial days, AltNews discovered that the handle was managed by Himanshu Jain, the director of Silver Touch Technologies. The website theindiaeye.in was registered under his name. Silver Touch Technologies is the same company that created the NaMo app.

The investigation goes on to list down a host of posts which were fake news promoted by The India Eye on the NaMo app itself.

Congress Gujarat IT Cell Pages: Facebook also took down hundreds of pages run by "individuals associated with the IT cell of the Indian National Congress." This was a whole bunch of IT cells based on regions and local towns in Gujarat which were found to be having posts critical of the ruling government.

Mama Mamu Bana Gaya: This page, allegedly belonging to Congress' many IT cells, had caricatures of BJP leaders put on a tempelatised backdrop. But this page did not have as much of engagement as The India Eye.

"Another page, called Jo Feku, had significant engagement — over 15,000 likes and followers — and employed a similar pattern of posting content related to the BJP," said the report from DFRLabs.

Facebook takes down ads without disclaimers

Earlier today, Facebook had also reportedly taken down 11,000 ads worth Rs 7.7 crore posted by Chinese app Helo — an app owned by Bytedance, the same company that owns TikTok. 

As per data available on Facebook Ad Library, in addition to these 11,000 ads now, Facebook had also taken down 49 ads by Vigo Video (an app owned by Bytedance too) and seven ads posted on ShareChat.

Helo has refused to divulge any details on the matter as it considers its ad-spending as confidential information. It did, however, claim in its email to the report that it had informed the Election Commission of India that it would not be serving any political advertisements on its platform during the election period.

While the Helo ads were not found to be promoting any single party, the ad content included news items about politicians, politics and national issues. Here are a few of the captions: "BJP using Atalji to the maximum potential", "Result day tomorrow no doubt bjp return again mp election result" (sic), "Just a few days back Rahul Gandhi said we will abolish GST..." and so on. Some of the captions also involved random stringing of words with a cover image showing tasteless, photoshopped images.

With inputs from Reuters

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