Facebook Ads, Funding, and Election Disinformation in South India – Information Global Internet

This story was published with the support of the International Center for Journalists’ Disarming Disinformation Program. NewsMeter collaborated with two International Fact-Checking Network signatories, YouTurn in Tamil Nadu and Telugu Post in Telangana, for this investigation.

The Indian National Congress (INC or Congress), India’s main opposition party, unveiled its election manifesto ‘Nyay Patra’ (Justice Document) in New Delhi on April 5, ahead of the country’s general elections held across seven phases from April to June 2024. This was followed by a major launch event the next day in the Congress-governed southern state of Telangana. Throughout its election campaign, several leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, claimed that the Congress’ manifesto intended to redistribute resources in the country and give them to the minority group Muslims, despite no such reference in the document. The Congress lodged a complaint before the Election Commission of India (ECI) — a constitutional body administering elections in India — alleging that the BJP was spreading disinformation.

In April, three Facebook pages, Telangana Central, Malabar Central, and Kannada Sangam, focused on the non-BJP ruled South Indian states Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala, ran meme-based ads accusing the Congress of appeasing Muslims and attempting to remove reservations for backward groups Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC). The ad content was uniformly distributed across the pages, often by translating text into regional languages or using Hindi directly in local scripts. Some ads also sought to discredit the opposition and depict Muslims negatively.

For instance, one ad depicted Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah helping a Muslim man board a boat marked with Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/OBC reservation labels. The Muslim man was then shown throwing the non-Muslim passengers into the water, while Gandhi and Siddaramaiah looked on with amusement. In another animated video, Modi was portrayed as a heroic figure rescuing the ‘discarded passengers’ to dramatic background music.These three pages, along with Tamilakam, a page that focuses on the southern state Tamil Nadu, shared ads identical to each other throughout the 2024 general elections. These ads were mostly propaganda and disinformation, attacking the non-BJP ruled state governments in the South, accusing them of Muslim appeasement and corruption. The ads and posts often displayed language that appeared to be translated using online tools, indicating centralised control by people unfamiliar with South Indian languages. In some instances, the language was difficult to comprehend even for native speakers. Some posts simply transposed Hindi words into South Indian languages. All these ads were run with opaque disclaimers, thus evading Meta’s transparency guidelines.

These pages are part of a network comprising around 14 proxy pages that ran surrogate ads during India’s general elections. The four pages — Telangana Central, Kannada Sangamam, Malabar Central, and Tamilakam — were all created on February 9 and collectively invested over Rs 1.5 crore in political advertising. This network in South India spent the most on Tamil Nadu.

India witnessed the world’s largest election from April 19 to June 1, with the results declared on June 4. Although Narendra Modi lost his outright majority for the first time in a decade, the BJP and its allies secured a majority, leading to Modi’s third term as Prime Minister. The idea that South India was a stronghold against the BJP’s Hindutva politics seemed to falter with the 2024 Lok Sabha election results. In the 2019 general elections, the BJP did not win any seats in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, or Kerala. However, in the 2024 elections, the party secured seats in all southern states except Tamil Nadu, where its vote share significantly rose, from 3.66 per cent in 2019 to 11 per cent in 2024.

In this report, we aim to analyse the political ads run on Meta ahead of the Indian general elections by shadow pages supporting the BJP and the parties in power in the five South Indian states: Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, Congress in Telangana and Karnataka, and Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. Our analysis of Meta Ad Library data covers the period between January and April, focusing primarily on ads run between January and March. A detailed methodology can be found at the end of this report.

‘Ulta Chashma’ & its role in Tamil Nadu

In February 2024, just two weeks before the announcement of election dates in India, the Tamil Nadu government ‘faced embarrassment’ over an advertisement for a new Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spaceport in the state that featured a rocket bearing the flag of China. Prime Minister Modi called the ad “an insult to scientists” and accused the party of not supporting India’s development. The Tamil Nadu government later admitted to the mistake, attributing it to an oversight by the ad designers.

In the midst of this controversy, MemeXpress, a pro-BJP Facebook page that is part of the aforementioned network of proxy pages, spent over Rs 4 lakh on multiple ads portraying Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin as a ‘Chinese agent’. Like the other pages in the network, propaganda posts and disinformation in the form of memes and short videos targeting opposition leaders and Muslims dominated MemeXpress’s content. The most heavily promoted ads ran by this page created on December 12, 2023, was a poster showing the Indian and Pakistani flags with the Congress party symbol, alluding to the party’s ‘pro-Pakistan agenda’. This ad ran 10 times, with expenditures exceeding Rs 10 lakh, notably in Karnataka. Over Rs 1.75 crore was spent by this page to run ads on Facebook and Instagram across the country ahead of the general elections.

Between January and March, MemeXpress spent over Rs 15.74 lakh on Meta ads in Tamil Nadu. However, a more significant spender in Tamil Nadu during this period was Tamilakam. This page spent over Rs. 86 lakh on ads in Tamil Nadu. Created in February 2024, just before the election announcements, Tamilakam spent Rs 16.59 lakh between February and March. In April, this amount increased to over Rs. 64.52 lakh.

This network of pages created between November 2023 and May 2024 did not overtly disclose any affiliation with the BJP in their names or profile pictures.

Ulta Chashma, the oldest page in this network, was created on November 6, 2023, and primarily shared pro-BJP and anti-Opposition content in Hindi. The network ran targeted ads without transparent disclosures, operating under various aliases that made their connections evident. Notably, no ads were directly run from the Ulta Chashma page after March 5. However, the page continued to run ads on different pages in the network until June 1, the final day of the polls.

Collectively, this network spent over Rs 9.46 crore on political ads from November 2023 to June 1. Tamilakam, Kannada Sangamam, Telangana Central, and Malabar Central, the pages in the network that directed their ads in regional languages to South Indian states, ranked among the top political spenders in their respective regions. MemeXpress and Political X-ray are the other two from the network that were significant political advertisers in the south. All pages in this network followed a pattern of providing untraceable addresses and inactive mobile numbers in their Meta Ad Library disclaimers to obscure their identities.

Ulta Chashma, MemeXpress, and Political X-ray have provided different mobile numbers and addresses, which are non-functional and vague. Truecaller data indicates that all three pages used phone numbers registered in Gujarat, hinting at a potential geographic origin.

These three pages also created placeholder websites. These websites contain only the same basic details given in the Meta Ad Library disclaimer and are hosted on different servers. However, it is noteworthy that all three websites follow the same design and content, which again confirms their interconnection and suggests a coordinated effort rather than independent initiatives.

The page MemeXpress ceased posting after April 4. On April 5, another page bearing the same name was created, which later rebranded to Meme Hub the following day. However, the ads on this page were run by MemeXpress. In April alone, this page spent over Rs 9 lakh on political ads in Tamil Nadu.

Aside from the Ulta Chashma network, the official BJP page spent over Rs 22.9 lakh between January and March, ranking second. In April, along with the BJP Tamil Nadu’s official page, the total spending reached Rs 94.87 lakh.

DMK’s digital campaign through party-owned firm

During the 2021 state elections, Tamil Nadu’s ruling party DMK collaborated with the political consultancy firm I-PAC. At that time, ads were run through official DMK pages under the name “DMK – Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam”. However, unlike previous elections, the DMK did not directly run any ads from their official accounts this time. Instead, ads were run through campaign pages like Ellorum Nammudan and Stalinin Kural by Populus Empowerment Network Private Limited (PEN), a firm owned by the party. Reports indicate that PEN, established in 2022, is owned by the Chief Minister’s son-in-law V Sabareesan. (Reference: ThePrint)

Between January and April, PEN ran ads on three pages: Ellorum Nammudan, Stalinin Kural, and Makkalin Mudhalvar. Ellorum Nammudan, the highest spender among DMK pages, initially spent Rs 4.73 lakh from January to March. However, in April alone, the spending surged to over Rs 2.75 crore.

PEN did not consistently use its own name for all ads. Between January and April, ads were also run under the names DMK and Ellorum Nammudan. Nevertheless, disclaimers in the Meta Ad Library linked these ads back to PEN, indicating that ads were run under various identities by PEN. These pages exclusively promoted pro-DMK content, highlighting the achievements and policies of the Tamil Nadu government.

Vijay M from PEN who managed DMK’s ad campaign during the 2024 elections told us that both Ellorum Nammudan and Stalinin Kural were created and maintained by the party specifically for running ads during the 2024 general elections. According to Vijay, the official DMK and Stalin handles are managed directly by the party, separate from PEN’s operations. PEN was responsible for running the ads and consequently created and managed several pages for this purpose.

“Months before the election, we started running ads through these pages. Initially, the focus was on promoting the party’s app, calls for volunteers, etc. Meta assesses a page’s activity when running political ads, so we aimed to develop and maintain these pages over time to prevent any issues,” Vijay explained.

For those aware of the association between Ellorum Nammudan, DMK, and PEN, any ads run on the page would be perceived as DMK ads. However, for those unaware of this link, it may lead to confusion regarding the source of the ads.

Meta’s transparency policies mandate that political advertisers identify themselves in advertisements. In India, advertisements related to elections, politics, and social issues on Meta platforms must include a disclaimer stating “Paid for by” or “Published by.” These disclaimers provide crucial information to viewers about the advertiser’s identity, aiding them in assessing both the ad content and the associated candidate, thereby enhancing advertiser accountability. However, networks like Ulta Chashma have exploited Meta’s transparency policies by failing to disclose the advertiser’s identity.

A joint investigation by Ekō, India Civil Watch International, and Foundation the London Story focused on the Ulta Chashma network within a 90-day period ending March 25, specifically examining shadow advertisers in the Meta Ad Library.

Maen Hammad, a researcher with Ekō, explained the rationale behind political parties creating new pages shortly before elections and running ads through them: “The pre-election period is crucial for influencing voting outcomes. Meta’s algorithms allow publishers to hyper-target ads to specific cities, states, and segments of the population. Many ads in the library we examined displayed some level of targeting, enabling publishers to exploit Meta’s ad system to disseminate targeted messages.”

When asked about running ads with multiple disclaimers on the same page, Vijay attributed it to technical issues, stating, “We have multiple disclaimers approved by Meta. This flexibility is necessary because certain disclaimers may not function properly when needed to run an ad, prompting us to switch to another registered disclaimer.” He emphasised that the public generally understands Ellorum Nammudan and Stalinin Kural as pages operated by the DMK, suggesting that the use of different disclaimers would not significantly impact perception.

A detailed report in Tamil on the top political advertisers in Tamil Nadu and the shadow pages that ran ads ahead of the 2024 general election in the state can be read here.

Shadow Pages and Stealthy Campaigns in Telangana

In Telangana, where the BJP secured eight seats — the second-highest in South India after Karnataka — the Ulta Chashma network spent a total of Rs 28 lakh between January and April. In contrast, two other pro-BJP shadow pages, Mana Modi and Prashnisthunna Telangana, collectively spent over Rs 71 lakh during the same period in the state. Similar to Ulta Chashma, these pages also ran Meta ads without disclosing the individual or agency responsible, using only the page name in their disclaimers.

The Mana Modi page explicitly states in its bio its goal to support Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister of India. Created in July 2023, just months before the November 2023 Assembly elections in Telangana, Mana Modi outspent the official Telangana BJP handle on the Meta Ad Library with expenditures exceeding Rs 32.18 lak during the state elections. The page focuses on promoting the BJP’s ‘achievements’ and also runs a website, manamodi.com.

Between January and March, Mana Modi spent Rs 10 lakh on ads in Telangana, ranking second only to the official BJP page, which spent over Rs 16 lakh in the state. In April, Mana Modi’s spending nearly tripled to Rs 28.9 lakh.

Prasnistunna Telangana was launched on February 12. Unlike Mana Modi, this page does not explicitly state its alliance with the BJP. It extensively attacked the Revanth Reddy-led Congress government in Telangana with numerous ads and also criticised the regional party, Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi (BRS), in some ads. The only party this page supports through its posts is the BJP. This page also has an associated website focused solely on highlighting the failures of the Congress government in Telangana since its formation in December 2024. One prominent advertisement on this page highlighted the ‘unfulfilled promises’ made by the party during the elections, and criticised implemented promises like the free bus service for women, citing issues with facilities.

During the state elections, while the Congress party heavily advertised on Meta, it was notably absent from the advertising scene in Telangana this time. Congress candidate Gaddam Vamsi Krishna, who won the Peddapalli Lok Sabha constituency by a significant margin of 4,55,552 votes, ranked ninth in ad spending with over 3.35 lakh. Krishna was the only Congress presence in the top 10 political spenders from Telangana in the Meta Ad Library.

Andhra Pradesh: YSRCP’s intense social media campaign and unprecedented electoral defeat

Andhra Pradesh recently witnessed intense Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, characterised by a highly charged campaign between the YSR Congress Party, led by Jagan Mohan Reddy, and the Telugu Desam Party, in alliance with the Jana Sena and the BJP. Despite significant efforts in social media campaigning and substantial spending on Meta ads, YSRCP faced a severe setback, winning only 11 seats compared to the opposition alliance’s 164 seats, marking its largest electoral defeat in the state’s history.

During the campaign period, while the official YSR Congress Party page refrained from running ads between January and March, a network of around 11 pages, managed by YSRCP’s political consultancy firm I-PAC, emerged as top spenders on Meta Ad Library. Interestingly, none of these pages disclosed their affiliation with YSRCP or I-PAC in their disclaimers, opting instead to run ads under their respective page names.

Prior to the election announcement, these pages primarily focused on criticising the opposition across various fronts, including economic policies, welfare schemes, and caste-related issues. However, once the election dates were declared on March 16, their ad content underwent a significant shift. The ads began highlighting Jagan’s speeches, particularly at YSRCP-organised meetings like the ‘Siddam Sabha’, showcasing his emotional connect with the public, such as interactions with elderly and children, portraying him as a hero and champion of the poor in Andhra Pradesh. These ads featured drone shots of large rally crowds, campaign songs, and testimonials from beneficiaries of YSRCP’s welfare schemes.

The top spenders among these pages included Jagananna Suraksha, created in June 2023, and Jagane Kavali, launched in June 2022. Both prominently featured Jagane Kavali as a common advertiser, which also ran ads on YSRCP’s verified Facebook page in April. This link clearly suggests coordination between these pages and the party. YSRCP’s official page resumed ads in April and May, initially under the name Jagane Kavali and subsequently under the party’s disclaimer.

Jagananna ki Thoduga, the oldest page in the network, was started in 2017 and ranked third in ad spending. Until 2022, I-PAC ran ads on this page using its name in the disclaimer. However, ahead of the 2024 election, ads were solely run under the name Jagan Anna ki Thoduga.

While the rest of the pages in the network also ran ads, they all did so by using different page names as disclaimers. Despite this, all these pages shared just two phone numbers among all the advertisers. We tried reaching out to these numbers. While the numbers existed on WhatsApp, they appeared to be out of service. Furthermore, a majority of these pages listed the address of an electronics store, Pai International, in Vijayawada. We found that the store is adjacent to the I-PAC office in Benz Circle, Vijayawada, the same office where Jagan visited the war room members after the elections.

Out of the 11 pages, two explicitly mentioned in their bios that they are ‘fan pages’ of Jagan. While pages such as Jagananna Suraksha introduce themselves as a government organisation, Jagane Kavali presents itself as a political organisation. When contacted, a member of Jagan’s team confirmed none of the 11 pages are “official” pages of the government or the party. However, we spoke to multiple volunteers who worked with I-PAC for Andhra elections. Under the condition of anonymity, they confirmed that they are familiar with the pages and have provided content for them. On May 11, the last day of campaigning in Andhra Pradesh, all the pages in the network changed their display picture to the same campaign poster, “Vote For Fan”. Between January and March, the network spent a total of Rs 1.97 crore. In the month of April, it was Rs 87.34 lakh.

Mohammad Irfan Basha, who runs a Hyderabad-based political consultancy F-JAC, suggests these pages are just the tip of the iceberg. Irfan, who has worked with candidates from various political parties in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for the general elections, explained, “When a candidate approaches us, we create multiple pages targeted at different social groups. Usually, only a maximum of two pages are run directly by the party; the rest are managed by consultancies during the elections. For instance, a BJP candidate might have a page that promotes religious posts, while another page focuses solely on the government’s development policies to appeal to different public groups.”

Irfan noted that YSRCP started their online campaigns at least seven to eight months before the elections, putting them well ahead of TDP, at least on social media platforms. “Ahead of the elections, YSRCP ran ads offering stipends for posting the party’s campaign posts. Youngsters were paid Rs 1,000 per post for 30 days. All they had to do was copy content from a WhatsApp group and paste it on their personal Facebook profiles.”

Such targeted campaigns on social media are often consumed without people realising they are part of a coordinated effort. When someone shares a post on their Facebook account, it reaches their family and friends, spreading the message further.

A detailed report in Telugu on Telangana and Andhra Pradesh can be read here.

How third-party ads shaped Kerala’s election narrative

MemeXpress, Meme Hub, and Malabar Central were among the top political ad spenders from the Ulta Chashma network in Kerala from March to April. Apart from them, two other pages, Change4TVM and TVM Talks, took the sixth and seventh positions respectively in April, the month Kerala went to polls. Despite the neutral appearance of their names and display pictures, these pages were notably supporting Rajeev Chandrasekhar, then a Union Minister and BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Thiruvananthapuram.

The Meta Ad Library reveals that Concept Communication, an India-based marketing agency, ran ads on Change4TVM. This agency also handled ads for the Uttar Pradesh Expressways Industrial Development Authority and UP State AYUSH Society. Leading up to the 2024 general elections, they also managed ads on Mission Ananthapuri, another pro-Chandrasekhar page created on March 31. For TVM Talks, however, the ads were under the page’s own disclaimer, although the contact numbers provided were the same across all pages.

We spoke to Kiran Nath, Digital Analyst at Concept Communication, who managed Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s online campaigns. Kiran confirmed that both Change4TVM and TVM Talks were managed by the company for Chandrasekhar’s election campaign.

Nath explained that the strategy involved running third-party ads to boost Chandrasekhar’s local presence since he was not widely known in Kerala and most of his social media followers were from Bengaluru.

“To build his online presence in Kerala, we started promoting Malayalam content on his official Facebook page a week before he submitted his nomination. We posted 20-25 posts a day, which helped us gain some local audience. However, due to Election Commission regulations, there were limitations on what we can post from a candidate’s official handle, especially since Chandrasekhar was also a minister. Furthermore, it’s more effective to promote oneself through third-party endorsements rather than self-promotion,” Nath said.

“To address this, we created the Facebook page Change4TVM and acquired an existing page called TVM Talks. We also used several other pages to run Chandrasekhar’s online campaigns. This strategy is common among political consultants nationwide. For instance, during the Uttar Pradesh state elections, we employed similar pages for Yogi Adityanath,” Nath continued.

Nath added that the campaign was designed with a long-term objective of increasing Chandrasekhar’s following in Kerala for future engagements and attracting organic users to his pages. The team reportedly increased his followers by around 60 per cent.

Despite these efforts, Chandrasekhar lost to Congress’ sitting MP Shashi Tharoor by around 15,000 votes. However, the BJP garnered 35.5 per cent of the vote share in Thiruvananthapuram, the second-highest in the state, and won the Thrissur seat with Suresh Gopi.

Pulse Keralam is another Malayalam page that spent over Rs 3 lakh in January-March. Launched on January 11, with around 45,000 followers, the page presents itself as a news site. However, its content is predominantly pro-Narendra Modi and BJP, with minimal opposition criticism. The issue lies in the fact that this ‘news’ is actually paid advertisements aimed at reaching a broader audience, thereby indirectly supporting the BJP’s election campaign.

Blow Horn Media, a Gujarat-based digital marketing agency, ran ads on Pulse Keralam and Namo Nayakan, a Modi fan page. Namo Nayakan was also among the top 10 spenders in Kerala between January and March. Unlike Pulse Keralam, the content on this page is not in the form of news reports. However, both pages share almost identical content, revealing a strategy of targeting different audiences with similar pro-BJP messages. While Pulse Keralam projected itself as a news platform, Namo Nayakan appealed to party followers.

Many of the pages in the top 10 for ad spending in Kerala between January and March saw a resurgence in the election month of April. The surge in posts from these pages did not alter the content nature but was instead due to increased spending and the emergence of more high-spending pages.

Beats of Calicut, the only pro-LDF page among the top 10 political advertisers in Kerala, was created in March 2024, just a month before the elections. In April, the page spent over Rs 3.5 lakh on ads, managed by an ad company named Maitri. Despite having only 58 followers, the page supported LDF candidate Elamaram Karim for the Kozhikode Lok Sabha constituency by highlighting LDF’s development activities and criticising Congress’s MK Raghavan. Unlike other examined pages, Beats of Calicut did not engage in religious or communal polarisation or defamation of the opposition. Instead, it focused on local issues and promoted religious harmony and unity.

While criticising the Congress of Muslim appeasement on one hand, the Ulta Chashma network also attempted to demonstrate that the BJP government has done more for Muslims than the opposition parties.

For example, on March 28, a video ad was shared by the Malabar Central page in Kerala, emphasising the BJP’s pro-Muslim stance. The ad claimed that more Haj pilgrims were sent from BJP-ruled Gujarat than from Kerala, which has a higher Muslim population, citing 2020 data to substantiate the claim. However, although applications were accepted in 2020, the Haj pilgrimage was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the years 2020 and 2021. In the years before 2020 and in this year’s figures, the quota for Haj pilgrims was higher for Kerala than Gujarat. Two more claims made in this post on the safety of citizens and the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir were also misleading. Newsmeter, a third-party fact-checker for Meta, rated the content as misleading; the post was, however, not removed. This is despite the Meta policy to take down ads rated as false information by its third-party fact-checkers.

A detailed report in Malayalam on the shadow pages and surrogate ads in Kerala can be read here.

Transparency Issues: Karnataka’s proxy pages and Meta ad disclosures

MemeXpress and Kannada Sangamam were the top spenders in Karnataka after the official BJP page between January and March 2024. Together, this network spent Rs 35.92 lakh in Karnataka in the first three months of 2024. In this state, where the BJP is the strongest in South India, the party secured 17 seats, the highest among all the southern states in the 2024 general elections. Pages such as Ulta Chashma and Meme Hub also spent substantial amounts on political ads in Karnataka. However, apart from this network, we also noticed multiple other shadow pages that ran ads in the name of the page. Mahathugbandhan, Nam Namo, and Khadeema Congress were a few shadow pages that were in the top 10.

The Mahathugbandhan page, started in 2019, spent Rs 4.21 lakh for running Meta ads in Karnataka between January and March. In April, over Rs 2 lakh was spent by the page in Karnataka.

This page targets leaders of all parties opposing the BJP. Short videos and memes mock and criticise leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and other opposition leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Uddhav Thackeray, Akhilesh Yadav, and Mamata Banerjee. None of the leaders have been directly named in these ads; instead, names like Fejriwal for Kejriwal and Nirmamata Didi for Mamata Banerjee have been used.

Around Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh were spent on an ad attributing a fake quote to Rahul Gandhi. In this ad, which has reached more than a million users, Gandhi is accused of saying that men who visit temples are not manly enough. In reality, Gandhi has not made any such statement. The ad also accuses Gandhi of being against Indian culture.

Almost identical videos are published on this page attacking opposition leaders, just by changing the main character. In one video, Arvind Kejriwal is portrayed as a corrupt leader; in other videos, Kejriwal has been replaced by Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, etc.

The ads run by this page before 2024 have all been removed by Meta for not following the company’s disclaimer policies. On some ads that are now deleted, it has been mentioned that the ad was run by an account Meta later disabled for not following their Advertising Standards. However, the page continues to run ads by the name Mahathugbandhan and none of its ads from January 2024 have been removed.

Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar, started in 2016, is one of the top political spenders in India. In April alone, the page spent over Rs 69 lakh, ranking seventh among top political spenders. Between January and March, the page spent Rs 6.59 lakh in Karnataka, maintaining the seventh position. This pro-BJP page regularly promotes the BJP government and attacks opposition leaders, frequently violating Meta Ad Library policies. From January to March, 74 ads in Karnataka were deleted for not adhering to Meta advertising standards.

Most ads between January and March featured quizzes on Modi and the Ayodhya Ram Mandir and urged users to pledge support for Modi’s re-election. These ads, often showing Modi with religious symbols, were in Hindi, English, Malayalam, Tamil, and Bengali languages. They redirected users to a website where they could provide their name and mobile number to receive a score and pledge certificate, serving as a data-harvesting strategy for the BJP.

Irfan explains that this method helps political parties connect with dedicated followers. According to Irfan, it’s easy to get voters’ phone numbers, but only those genuinely interested in the party or ideology will share their numbers for a pledge certificate, enabling targeted content delivery to real supporters.

Irfan said, “In today’s time, it is not difficult to get the phone numbers of voters in a constituency. You can send promotional messages or calls to all 20 lakh people in a constituency. However, not all of them will be interested in your party or ideology. On the other hand, those who share their number to avail a certificate pledging support, for example, to Modi, are dedicated supporters of BJP. Through such online campaigns, parties can identify their real supporters and send them targeted content.”

In Tamil and Malayalam, the page ran 183 ads, with 20 pledge-related ads deleted for policy violations. Started in April, the page used compelling videos to influence voters, including ads attacking the opposition as anti-development or anti-national. These ads, created in Hindi, were dubbed into Malayalam and Tamil.

One such video mocking left-wing students depicts a group protesting for freedom on the road. They hold multiple placards, including one labelled “GNU”, clearly mocking left-wing student groups from Jawaharlal Nehru University. In the video, these students express disappointment at no longer being able to “destroy” the nation. They admit to previously mocking and humiliating the nation and its religions but claim they can’t do so anymore because of the Modi government. While discussing their situation, the group ends up praising the BJP government and the construction of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir.

Crafto was another top spender in Karnataka. The ads on this page were run by Kutumb, a multilingual app enabling users to create community-focused apps to share news, updates, and discuss issues through various media formats. Crafto operated differently from other pages, running short video ads with titles like “Put your photo with Rahul Gandhi’s photo and promote Congress party” or “Put your photo with Narendra Modi’s photo and promote BJP party.” These videos served as a means of data harvesting. In April, Crafto spent a total of Rs 3.59 lakh on ads in Karnataka.

Mansoor Khan Fan Club, a fan page for Congress candidate Mansoor Ali Khan from Bengaluru Central ranked fourth in political ad spending in Karnataka. This page, following the official BJP and Congress pages, spent Rs 6.4 lakh in April, using only the page name as its disclaimer. Additionally, another fan page, Mansoor For Change, also ran ads in April, managed by the ad agency House of Alt. The content of its ads focused on the Congress party’s development promises and local issues of Bengaluru. Notably, this election season, only four ads were run from Khan’s official Facebook page, which spent a very minimal amount compared to his fan pages.

A report in Kannada detailing these trends can be read here

Calls for stricter regulation

Ahead of the initial phase of elections in India, several civil society groups raised concerns with the Election Commission of India about surrogate advertisements. They highlighted the challenges in monitoring political parties’ expenditures through both formal and informal means. The letter criticised the “voluntary code of ethics” introduced in March 2019, aimed at ensuring ethical usage of social media platforms during elections, and focused on the code’s lack of transparency, its non-binding nature, and the absence of mechanisms for citizens to report violations.

The groups advocated for a binding Model Code of Conduct with clear enforcement guidelines and reporting mechanisms. They called for the development of such a code through a transparent and participatory process led by an independent organisation.

Regarding the accountability of political parties to the Election Commission for advertisements on Meta platforms, Vijay clarified, “Candidates are only required to submit their official social media handles when filing nominations. Other pages are not reported to the EC. While a valid pre-certificate from the EC is required for each election ad on Google, including a creative ID, no such requirement exists for running ads on Meta.”

In April 2024, activists from various Indian diaspora organisations protested outside Meta’s London offices against the spread of hate speech and misinformation on Meta in the lead-up to the Indian general elections. Their demands included halting all paid political advertising during India’s election silence period and ensuring transparency in disclosing the funding sources for all political advertisements.

Ritumbra Manuvie, a law professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and executive director of The London Story, one of the organisations that was part of the protest, highlighted how political parties exploit the Meta Ad Library through consultants to circumvent Election Commission guidelines. She stated, “In India, the MCC provides clear guidelines for parties and candidates regarding content and spending limits, particularly limiting candidate spending. Over time, these rules have extended to print media, particularly in terms of paid media content and advertising. This includes the development of forms for non-affiliated individuals wishing to publish partisan ads during elections. However, with social media and paid ad consultancies (shadow organisations), these rules can be bypassed.”

Manuvie further explained, “Parties do not face spending limits, but they are required to disclose details (also confirmed in the Supreme Court’s electoral bonds judgement). Meta ads disclose the buyer of the ad company, often only through an obscure page name that may not correspond to a natural or legal person. Voters cannot discern the person, party, or funding agency behind pages like Ulta Chashma or MemeXpress. Although some businesses declare GSTIN and director details, engaging these service providers in an unregulated advertising domain allows rules to be circumvented.”

“Candidates have spending limits, but inserting firms between candidates undermines transparency. For instance, in a toxic advertisement campaign not directly by candidates, issues like creative freedom and freedom of speech may invoke causality and correlation,” she added.

We reached out to Meta, highlighting how political parties and their proxy pages exploit the Meta Ad system and requested their stance on this issue. A Meta spokesperson replied via email, stating, “We enforce against ads that are found to be violating, and repeated failure to comply may result in penalties against the advertiser. People that want to run ads about elections or politics must go through the authorization process required on our platforms and are responsible for complying with all applicable laws.”

At the time of writing this story, we noticed some ads run by Ulta Chashma on Political X-ray marked saying it was run by an account Meta later disabled for not following their Advertising Standards. However, the ads are still present in the library and not removed. Also, the ads run by Ulta Chashma in other pages do not have any such notice.

Methodology

The aim of this project was to analyse the political ads run by the shadow pages of BJP, the main party in the NDA alliance ruling the centre, and the parties in power in the five south Indian states ahead of the 2024 general elections. For this purpose, we extracted data from the Meta Ad Library for political ads in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala between January and April. Our study focused on the top 10 pages in the list, further filtering out unofficial pages that ran ads in favour of BJP or the party ruling the state. We then segregated the posts from these pages based on engagement, sampling those with more than one million interactions.

The Meta Ad Library is a searchable database that provides information on ads displayed across Meta platforms, including details on expenditure, audience reach, and funding sources. For ads related to social issues, elections, or politics, Meta provides extra details and archives these ads for seven years, regardless of their active or inactive status.

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Facebook Ads, Funding, and Election Disinformation in South India #Facebook #Ads #Funding #Election #Disinformation #South #India

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Source Link: https://newsmeter.in/fact-check/unseen-hands-facebook-ads-funding-and-election-disinformation-in-south-india-732105

Facebook Ads, Funding, and Election Disinformation in South India – Information Global Internet

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