Facebook removes 700 accounts, pages linked to BJP and Congress ahead of Lok Sabha elections

Updated: April 2, 2019 7:04:23 AM

The social media giant also said that it had removed several pages in Pakistan that the company claims were linked to the media wing of the Pakistani military.

The social media giant also said that it had removed several pages in Pakistan that the company claims were linked to the media wing of the Pakistani military.

By Shruti Dhapola & Karishma Mehrotra

In the first big crackdown on fake accounts for “inauthentic behaviour” in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, Facebook on Monday announced that it has removed over 702 pages, groups and accounts from India, many of which are linked to the BJP and Congress.

The social media giant also said that it had removed several pages in Pakistan that the company claims were linked to the media wing of the Pakistani military.

Facebook said it detected “coordinated inauthentic behaviour in the region ahead of the upcoming elections in India” and removed these pages in four separate takedowns because of their behaviour and their desire to deceive users about their identity, not because of their content. “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,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of Cybersecurity Policy, in a telephonic interaction with The Indian Express.

Giving examples, he said that some accounts pretended to be a news page but was 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 and accounts linked to the IT firm Silver Touch Technologies — a company that has done work for both the government and the BJP. One such page removed was The India Eye, which has been 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 (almost Rs 50 lakh) in ads. According to Reuters, Gleicher said Facebook only knew that Silvertouch “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 told Reuters, without elaborating.

Silver Touch Technologies developed the NAMO app and is “empanelled with central government, various state governments and their supplementary programs for delivering IT solutions”, including the National Informatics Centre (NIC), Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), Government of Uttar Pradesh, according to its website. Silver Touch Technologies could not be contacted for comment.

Several BJP social media volunteers told The Indian Express that they received no warning of the takedowns by Facebook and claim that the social media company had no reason to suddenly remove their pages.
In the second takedown group, Facebook 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.

BJP social media volunteer Santosh Srivastava from Lucknow told the Indian Express that Facebook took down 11 of his pages which accumulated to 2.5 crore 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 BJP-supporting but also “pro-India” pages.

“If there was prior notice that I shouldn’t do something, then I wouldn’t do it. They didn’t tell us anything. They are saying that they took down Congress pages, when actually they took down more BJP supporting pages. You think it’s easy to collect all these likes?” he said, adding that all his pages were made with either his or his brother’s real Facebook ID.

“In one short night, Facebook has removed over 40 of our BJP base pages, which had 10 crore investment. Almost 90 percent of our strength on Facebook. They just want to say that they’ve acted against spam for their investors,” said another BJP volunteer.

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,” INC India 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 3.5 lakh followers was taken down without warning. She joined 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 2,06,000 accounts followed one or more of these pages. Pages mentioned are Jo Feku, ‘Baba Bhrashtachari’ and 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, paid for in Indian rupees.

Referring to pages and accounts removed in Pakistan, Facebook said the creators behind this network tried to conceal their identities, its investigation found that several of the accounts were linked to employees of the ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military.

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