On Monday, April 1, Facebook removed 687 pages, groups, and accounts mostly linked to the Congress for displaying “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
Some of these pages and accounts have links to the ruling party as well. The India Eye Facebook page and allegedly associated IT firm Silver Touch have connections to the BJP.
In a statement, Facebook Head of Cyber Security Nathaniel Gleicher said the social media giant has conducted four “distinct and unconnected” take-downs.
Facebook removed these accounts, groups, and pages not for their content, but for their behaviour; it was reportedly organised and intended to influence and manipulate people in India.
The Congress has been quick to distance itself from these unverified accounts. However, BJP leaders have used this development to take the spotlight away from the ruling party that has often come under fire for recruiting organised IT cells.
What did Facebook remove?
Gleicher explains that Facebook and Instagram have removed 103 pages, groups, and accounts that originated in Pakistan. These users “frequently posted” about the Indian government, news, and military and tried to conceal their identities.
However, Facebook found the users had links to the Inter-Service Public Relations, the media arm of the Pakistani military. Around 2.8 million users followed these accounts that spent around $1,100 (almost Rs 76,000) on advertisements to grow their following.
There is currently no link between the accounts in India and Pakistan, but they both tried to “mislead others about who they were and what they were doing,” said Gleicher.
Facebook has also removed 687 pages and accounts that “engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior in India and were linked to individuals associated with an IT Cell of the Indian National Congress (INC)”.
These accounts posted about Indian news and the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and spent $39,000 (about Rs 26 lakh) on ads.
The website also deleted 15 pages, groups, and accounts that behaved in a similar manner and had links to Silver Touch, an IT firm that allegedly works closely with the BJP. The India Eye is the page at the centre of controversy with Silver Touch and the BJP.
Another 321 pages and accounts were removed for violating Facebook’s spam rules, not for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” like the others.
Gleicher said, “This activity goes against what people expect on Facebook and it violates our policies. This is why we continue to invest in people and resources to improve the technology we use to detect this type of harmful behaviour, and we will continue to take action on an ongoing basis to address it.”
BJP and Congress responses
Congress took to Twitter to post an official statement addressing the matter.
The party said, “This is to clarify no official pages run by INC have been taken down. Additionally, all pages run by our verified volunteers are also unaffected. 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 is making a distinction between its verified followers and party workers and others, hoping to communicate that whoever the Congress has publicly endorsed is safe from any controversy.
However, the BJP took this opportunity to attack the Opposition.
Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told ANI, “Today, a very historical development has taken place. Owners of those accounts are unknown. It was fake. It was used to spread falsehood against Narendra Modi government.”
After an inquiry found the accounts linked to the Congress, Prasad added that the Opposition is desperately resorting to “dubious means to claim support” ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
But the BJP has not escaped unscathed from the Facebook takedown.
BJP’s Silver Touch and India Eye problem
Reuters reported that 12 of the suspended accounts, one page, one group, and one Instagram account have links to Indian IT firm Silver Touch. Gleicher said Silver Touch is “associated with” the BJP’s NaMo app.
Director of Silver Touch Himanshu Jain’s Linkedin profile also says the IT firm works “closely with the Government to provide e-services to citizens”.
However, after BJP IT head Amit Malviya told Reuters that the NaMo app is not associated with Silver Touch, Facebook backtracked on its head of cyber security’s statement.
“We won’t be speculating about off-platform connections of the actors we took down today,” said a Facebook spokesperson. It added that there was no evidence linking Silver Touch with the NaMo app.
The BJP has an even more damning association with The India Eye, a Facebook page taken down for peddling false news.
The India Eye had about 17 lakh followers before the platform removed it. Fact-checking website Alt News found that @HemanNamo, advertising for news updates, posted on Twitter a phone number from the India Eye page. The handle’s profile picture was that of Modi, as well.
Modi himself follows this Twitter account.
One of HeMan Namo’s old tweets contained a link to a Facebook profile of someone identified as Himanshu Jain by the URL. This doesn’t directly imply Silver Touch’s Jain was behind The India Eye.
However, Alt News explains that when users update their profile pictures on Twitter, a default tweet with the image and hashtag #NewProfilePic is created.
When the site found a tweet by HeMan NAMO hashtagged with #NewProfilePic containing the image of a man, it searched the image and was redirected to Silver Touch’s site.
Jain’s Linkedin profile picture matches the one in the tweet.
Silver Touch owns India Eye’s IP address as well, said Alt News after running the address through at least three online tools.
When Alt News approached Jain and Vipul Thakkar, Silver Touch’s director, for comments, both denied the company’s involvement with The India Eye.
“The IP Address of the website was changed soon after this conversation. The phone number originally listed on the ‘About’ section of ‘The India Eye’ Facebook page was also removed,” said Alt News.
Why it matters
Social media is slowly changing the face of democracy all over the world. Disinformation and partisan content is easily posted and readily consumed by users in India—an increasingly growing phenomenon that needs tackling.
The Election Commission has already begun dealing with Model Code of Conduct violations. Ahead of the polls, the EC asked social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to report dedicated “troll” accounts and ensure they don’t interfere with election and political discourse in the country. While the task is daunting, at least Facebook seems to be an effective gatekeeper.
“We are constantly working to detect and stop coordinated inauthentic behaviour because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people,” said Gleicher.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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