The Congress said in a statement that none of the pages taken down were officially backed by it or its verified volunteers.(REUTERS)
The Congress said in a statement that none of the pages taken down were officially backed by it or its verified volunteers.(REUTERS)

Facebook deletes hundreds of accounts, pages ‘linked’ to BJP, Congress

According to Facebook, the network associated with the Congress included 549 accounts and 138 pages, which reached 206,000 followers.
By Vidhi Choudhary | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON APR 01, 2019 11:51 PM IST

Facebook announced on Monday that it had taken down 702 accounts, pages and groups linked to political activity in India because of “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, a crackdown of unprecedented scale that comes amid growing concerns over social media content that could unfairly influence the general elections due in less than two weeks.

The company headquartered in the US said the takedown included two networks, one run by “individuals associated” with the Congress’s IT cell and the other by those linked to an information technology firm called Silver Touch, which, a Facebook executive separately said, “among other things” worked for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP. “We didn’t find any links between the campaigns we’ve removed today, but they used similar tactics by creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” the company’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a blog post.

Both parties said they did not have any connection to accounts or pages that were taken down.

According to Facebook, the network associated with the Congress included 549 accounts and 138 pages, which reached 206,000 followers.

The network linked to Silver Touch included a widely popular page called The India Eye, which was followed by 2.6 million people on Facebook and 15,000 on Instagram.

There was also a stark difference in the amount of advertising bought by the two networks, with the one linked to Silver Touch spending $70,000 (Rs 48.5 lakh by current exchange rate) since 2014 while the other spent $39,000 (Rs 26.9 lakh) over the same period.

The Congress said in a statement that none of the pages taken down were officially backed by it or its verified volunteers. “In the mean time, we are awaiting a response from Facebook to provide us a list of all pages/accounts that they have taken down,” the party said in a post on Twitter.

Representatives of Silver Touch did not offer a comment when contacted by phone, while the BJP said it had no connection with the company. “BJP and the Namo app have nothing to do with Silver Touch,” said Amit Malviya, the national in-charge of the party’s information and technology wing.

Gleicher, however, said the firm, was linked to the BJP, Reuters reported. Facebook saw that the company was associated with a mobile application promoted by Modi, the news agency quoted Gleicher as saying.

Links between the company and the party were also reported by fact-checking website AltNews. “We found that The India Eye website’s domain name server (DNS) was hosted by Silver Touch,” said Pratik Sinha, the co-founder of AltNews, which reported about the links in February.

The samples released by Facebook showed screenshots of posts that criticised the BJP and Modi in the case of the network linked to the Congress, while the posts made by The India Eye disparaged the Opposition, including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, while praising the PM.

Experts were divided over the action by Facebook. “All social media companies have committed to curb fake news and this takedown by Facebook is a step in that direction,” said Rahul Matthan, lawyer and author of Privacy 3.0.

Another legal expert said the move was being criticised for political bias since no objective standard or a level of meaningful transparency regarding the decision was provided. “For instance, one does not know to a detailed level who is filing reports or complaints, what’s the specific methodology for takedowns and do owners of these accounts get a chance of hearing or appeal,” said lawyer Apar Gupta.

“All of this is a natural outcome of the voluntary code which is not an enforceable legal standard,” he added, referring to a pledge that social media companies made following a meeting with the Election Commission in March to discuss steps such platforms need to take to ensure elections are not influenced.

Since the 2016 presidential election in United States and the Brexit referendum the same year, social media firms have faced intense scrutiny over the existing misinformation campaigns that could have played a role in both outcomes, and an inability to check political advertising masquerading as public discussion.

Monday’s announcement triggered a wider war of words between the BJP and the Congress, with members of the ruling party citing Facebook’s naming of the opposition party in the official release. “Today a very historical development has taken place. Owners of those accounts were not known. It was fake. It was used to spread falsehood against the Narendra Modi government. When inquiry was done, it was found that those individuals were linked to Congress IT cell,” said Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Congress’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala hit back, asking why Facebook did not disclose details about Silver Touch and name BJP. “Why did Facebook not name the BJP? Is it because the BJP officially paid Rs 1.5 crore to Facebook between March 2, 2019 and March 16, 2019 for advertisements while the Congress paid just Rs 1.68 lakh? They should not come under pressure and spell out the truth,” he said.

“Let me reiterate that none of the pages of our verified accounts and those run by our volunteers have been removed,” he added.

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