Did Facebook in India Help BJP and Modi?

Date Posted: March 14, 2019 Last Modified: March 14, 2019
Faccebook's close links with the BJP existed well before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014. Photo Wikimedia Commons

Is Facebook truly an agnostic platform for all to use? After interviewing nearly 50 people over the last five months, we collated evidence (some of it circumstantial) to indicate that senior employees of Facebook India have worked, and continue to work, very closely with the country’s ruling Right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Its close links with the BJP existed well before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014 and got strengthened thereafter. Given past experience, the question is whether Facebook will be neutral before the April-May 2019 general elections. In the first in a series of long reports, we looked at how Facebook’s companion platform WhatsApp had been complicit in spreading fake news, incendiary information and acted against those critical of India’s ruling regime. In this, the second article, we report on how Facebook India and its platforms arrived at the dominant position it is in at present.

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In September 2017, the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, accused Facebook of bias against him. The chief executive officer of the world’s biggest social media platform Mark Zuckerberg stated:  

“I want to respond to President Trump’s Tweet … claiming Facebook has always been against him. Every day I work to bring people together and build a community for everyone. We hope to give all people a voice and create a platform for all ideas. Trump says Facebook is against him. Liberals say we helped Trump. Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don’t like. That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like… This was the first US election where the internet was a primary way candidates communicated. Every candidate had a Facebook page to communicate directly with tens of millions of followers every day. Campaigns spent hundreds of millions advertising online to get their messages out even further. That’s 1,000x more than any problematic ad(vertisement)s we’ve found…

“After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive. But the data we have has always shown that our broader impact – from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote – played a far bigger role in this election… We will do our part to defend against nation-states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections. We’ll keep working to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and to ensure our community is a platform for all ideas and (a) force for good in democracy.”

How sincere is Zuckerberg? Or was he merely mouthing platitudes in reaction to growing criticism of Facebook and its failure to check abuse and manipulation of its ostensibly-agnostic social media platform by interest groups? A few months later, in December 2017, Bloomberg published a report authored by Laurence Etter, Vernon Silver and Sarah Frier titled “How Facebook’s Political Unit Enables the Dark Art of Digital Propaganda.” The article categorically asserted that the company and its employees work “… actively with political parties and leaders who use Facebook to stifle opposition – sometimes with the aid of ‘troll armies’ that spread misinformation and extremist ideologies.”

The report added that members of the team led by Katie Harbath, global politics and government outreach director of Facebook, who had earlier worked as a digital strategist with the Republican Party and with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had worked as “de facto campaign managers” for politicians in India, Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, Argentina, Poland, the Philippines. They reportedly supported “patriotic trolling” or used government-backed propaganda to harass dissidents and consolidate power. The Bloomberg article quoted Mark Crispin Miller, media and cultural studies professor at New York University saying: “They’re (meaning Facebook’s employees are) too cosy with power.”

Facebook helped Narendra Modi before and after he became Prime Minister of India develop his online presence to ensure that he has more “followers” on the social media platform than any other political leader on the planet. According to a study called “World Leaders on Facebook” by Burson Cohn and Wolfe, in May 2018, Modi had as many as 43.2 million “followers” on the platform with Trump coming a poor second with 23.1 million followers.

From the day elections were announced in 2014 till the day the polling ended, 29 million people in India made 227 million interactions (posts, comments, shares and likes) regarding the Indian elections on Facebook. This number was approximately two-thirds the number of daily active Facebook users in India and worked out to an average of ten interactions per person. In addition, 13 million people made 75 million interactions specifically regarding Modi.

With the People’s Republic of China shutting Facebook out of the world’s most-populous country, India has been – and will continue to remain – the digital monopoly’s biggest market in terms of number of users. Its platforms, including WhatsApp and Instagram, comprise an unparalleled and unprecedented backbone of an internet-based communications infrastructure. India, with over 1.3 billion people – with a median age of 27 and half the population below the age of 26 – has the largest number of WhatsApp users in the world at present, approximately 200 million. For some years now, the largest number of users of Facebook are also in India.

From an estimated 100 million in 2014, the number of users of Facebook went up to 136 million the following year. By April 2018, the total number of users of Facebook and WhatsApp had exceeded 200 million and rose further to over 220 million till September. Some would place these estimates as conservative. One “guess-estimate” places the number of current users at 270 million. The number of Facebook users in India is projected to go up to somewhere in the region of 300 million by 2022. The current number of Instagram users in India at 64 million is the fourth highest in the world.  

India has also emerged as the biggest disinformation factory on the planet in recent years. The digital footprint of Indian online content marketing companies, many close to the ruling regime, have been reported in at least five countries, including the US and Mexico, that have witnessed elections over the last two years. There is good reason to believe that the social media will be sought to be utilised in a major way in the coming general elections scheduled for April-May 2019 and the assembly elections in five states in November-December.

In April 2013, a study by IRIS Knowledge Foundation and the Internet and Mobile Association of India claimed that the social media, notably Facebook, could influence the outcome of as many 160 “high impact” Lok Sabha constituencies out of the 543 in the country. At that time, many scoffed at this claim. However, there is no denying the fact that over the last five and half years, the use of the social media, especially WhatApp, has expanded manifold and political leaders cutting across party affiliation believe that what is going to be put out over the social media in the coming months could have a significant influence in shaping voting preferences across India, not just in urban areas but even in small towns and in remote villages.

While there are multiple views on the efficacy of social media and psychographic targeting, it is well-established that in constituencies where there are close contests, social media can play a role in determining electoral outcomes. Praveen Chakravarty, economist and former investment banker who was appointed as head of data analytics in the Indian National Congress in February, has described the outcome of the 2014 general elections as a “black swan” moment as the BJP won 282 out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha with 3l.4% of the popular vote. As much as 90%  of all the votes obtained by the party was concentrated in roughly 60% of the parliamentary constituencies (to be precise, 299 Lok Sabha constituencies) with the remaining 10%  spread over the remaining 40% or 254 constituencies. With the forthcoming 17th general elections expected to be more keenly contested than the one in 2014, the imperative to “weaponise” the social media has evidently become more important than ever before for India’s political parties.

Facebook opened its first office in India in 2011. At that time, the platform had 15 million users in the country and was still three years away from buying WhatsApp. Its office in Hyderabad was staffed mostly by sales personnel. A year later, Facebook appointed Ankhi Das as its policy director for India. Before joining Facebook, she had worked as communications head at Microsoft India and had excellent relations with politicians, government bureaucrats and policy-makers. She was considered “perfect for the job.”

India was then in the midst of social turmoil and political uncertainty. A nationwide anti-corruption movement had started in 2011 and the gang-rape of a young woman in the heart of the country’s capital in 2012 had stirred middle-class Indians to come out on the streets. The country was witnessing protests by ordinary citizens on a scale not seen for decades. The BJP, which was then the principal opposition party, was disrupting proceedings in Parliament. The media was relentlessly focussing on stories of big-ticket corruption involving important functionaries in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition government. To many political observers, the Manmohan Singh government appeared to be on its last legs after ruling the country since 2004. 

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Two years after opening its office, Facebook had fast turned into a platform of choice for political conversations online and for mobilising people, especially young adults, to support a variety of causes, notably political issues. The company nearly doubled its users in India from 15 million in 2011 to 28 million the following year. Much of this growth came from users between the ages of 17 and 35.

In October 2014, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg arrived in Chandrauli village in Haryana in an orange helicopter to see first-hand how the internet and the use of social media could change the lives of ordinary Indians. On that trip, he met Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi and exulted about his “Digital India” initiative. A few months later, in March 2015, Facebook enthusiastically rolled out its internet.org plan to provide “free” access to some three-dozen selected websites. Reliance Mobile, which provided the service, put out advertisements that read: “The sun is free. The air is free. Then why shouldn’t the internet be free?”

Facebook did not anticipate then that the scheme would be rejected by the citizens of the country as a “gift they did not need.” The regulatory body, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asked for public comments on Facebook’s offer which was re-christened “Free Basics” – using the same acronym as the parent organisation. Opposition had started building up to the “gift” that was being offered. One instance was the popularity of the video of a show by the satirical group All India Bakchod ridiculing the “FB” scheme which got over 3.5 million views. Still, Facebook persisted. Thousands of billboards were put up across the country. Front pages in leading newspapers advertised Free Basics. The publicity campaign is supposed to have cost the company over ₹250 crore.

In September 2015, after Modi hugged Zuckerberg to much applause at a townhall meeting at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park in California’s Silicon Valley, Facebook’s promoter put out a post that read: “In recent campaigns around the world – from India and Indonesia across Europe to the United States – we’ve seen the candidate with the largest following on Facebook usually wins.”

In barely a month, Zuckerberg was back in India addressing entrepreneurs using the internet at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Media reports suggest that many were sceptical of what Facebook was offering while others were downright hostile to the scheme which would “discriminate” among websites that could be accessed “free” thus violating the tenets of net neutrality – it was akin to telling users of a library that books in only certain sections would be available for reading without payment. Two days before a TRAI deadline for public responses to questions on net neutrality, Zuckerberg published an editorial page article plugging Free Basics in the Times of India, India’s – and the world’s – most widely circulated English daily. Sixteen million users of Facebook were apparently prompted to send messages to TRAI supporting Free Basics.

Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation and a lawyer who has been advocating free speech issues, recalls how he had serious differences – and heated exchanges – with Facebook’s representatives, including Das, about the organisation’s lobbying methods. “Me and others told them (representatives of Facebook) that this was not the way to put their views across to the government, but they went ahead,” he said.

All the efforts put in by Facebook were, however, in vain. The Free Basics programme, which had apparently been “welcomed” in countries like Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines, was summarily rejected by India’s telecom regulator TRAI – a move that was welcomed by digital activists in the country. On 8 February 2016, Facebook stopped the Free Basics scheme in India.

Soon there was to be a change of guard in Facebook India. Umang Bedi joined as vice president and managing director in June 2016. He did not last long. Fifteen months later, in October 2017, he quit and was replaced by Sandeep Bhushan.

Earlier, in May that year, Facebook launched its Express WiFi initiative in partnership with telecommunications group Bharti Airtel to set up 20,000 wifi hotspots across India. 

We reached out to Bedi for his comments, but he declined to speak citing a confidentiality agreement with his former employer. (He is now based out of Bengaluru and heads Daily Hunt which is engaged in promoting news feeds in Indian languages other than English.)

During the period Facebook was actively lobbying for Free Basics, Zuckerberg, his second-in-command Sheryl Sandberg and other top executives were actively assisted by Ankhi Das who was heading policy and government relations in India for the organisation. Writing in the UK-based Guardian in May 2016, journalist Rahul Bhatia quoted an unnamed Facebook executive saying: “We use to joke that she (Das) was like Modi’s grand-daughter.”

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The big storm was to come subsequently. The past two years have been pretty hellish for Facebook. The organisation has faced increased international scrutiny and strident criticism. It has come to epitomise all things that have gone wrong with the technology industry. Its platforms have been accused of helping manipulate public opinion to influence elections, trigger violence, censoring news and covertly assisting regimes to consolidate more power. Facebook’s executives have been censured for allegedly misleading sovereign governments on its business practices and user policies. There have been calls for the resignation of Zuckerberg and his deputy Sheryl Sandberg. It has been argued that the time has come for the digital giant to be broken up in the manner in which the Bell Group or AT&T – once known as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company founded in 1879 by Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone – was fragmented into competing entities in the early-1980s.

In September 2018, a United Nations organisation recommended an independent investigation into the company’s complicity in the genocide of Rohingyas in Myanmar. The company acknowledged that it should have acted much before it did.

Unlike in other countries, criticism of Facebook’s activities has been relatively muted in India. Its close association with the ruling party and the incumbent regime has been of great help in this regard. As we shall subsequently detail, a key official of Facebook India in an earlier avatar had a close association with Modi’s pre-election campaign in 2013. An organisation helmed by this person’s wife has been supported by Facebook in what has been alleged as an instance of “conflict of interest,” a contention that was denied by a spokesperson of the organisation. But more about these issues in a subsequent article.

Little is publicly known about Facebook India’s relationships with political parties, unlike what has been disclosed about the role the organisation supposedly played in supporting the campaign that saw Trump becoming President of the US in November 2016 and the alleged Russian collaboration in the campaign to elect him. Four years earlier, in 2012, Barack Obama’s use of the social media had been much commented on. He was affectionately described as the world’s first “Facebook President.”

In India, the role that Facebook and WhatsApp would play in influencing political opinion was not realised till much later. In late-2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat was headed for an election for its legislative assembly. The state was a stronghold of Modi and the BJP. After the anti-Muslim riots in the state earlier that year, Modi was very keen on projecting his “pro-industry” and “pro-technology” image. He was himself beginning to realise the potential of digital media in garnering political support.

At a private meeting in April 2010, Rajesh Jain, an internet millionaire from Mumbai made a power-point presentation to the then Chief Minister of Gujarat titled “Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 2014.” Four months later, Jain had been appointed director of Gujarat Informatics Limited, a state government-owned information technology company. Over the next three years, with a clutch of other entrepreneurs, bankers, journalists and members of the BJP’s IT cell, Jain helped executed what can be described as one of the most elaborate political marketing exercises of its kind in modern Indian politics, an exercise that the BJP’s critics describe as developing “myths” surrounding Modi’s persona.

Jain had plans of his own. He had studied electrical and communications engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and at Columbia University, New York.

In 1993, Jain made headlines while analysing photographic evidence that contradicted the Indian government’s defence of former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s alleged involvement in a bribery case. It had been claimed that Rao had received a bribe of ₹1 crore from Mumbai-based stockbroker Harshad Mehta who was at the epicentre of a major financial scandal. The Prime Minister’s Office predictably denied the claim. And to rubbish Mehta, the PMO put out a photograph of Narasimha Rao with the then External Affairs Minister of Pakistan and claimed that the Prime Minister was meeting the Pakistani minister at precisely the time the broker had alleged that he had paid the bribe to him.

Jain analysed an image published in India Today magazine and conclusively proved that the PMO was lying. The company mentioned in the report was Ravi Database Consultants Pvt Ltd, which was a company that was then headed by Jain.  

After a second trip to the US in late-1994 where he experienced first-hand the huge potential of the internet, in March 1995, he started India World which was supposed to be the country’s “first” digital media company, or so he contended. Rajesh Jain hit the proverbial jackpot less than five years later in December 1999 when Satyam Infoway brought IndiaWorld Communications for ₹499 crore in cash, then equivalent to US$115 million. By then, India World had evolved from operating a single website to an internet services providing company that hosted websites, mail servers and search engines. It ran a family of nine websites across news, sports, entertainment, personal finance, history and food. India World, at that time, had recorded an impressive 13 million page-views. Its clientele was mostly NRIs.

After the sale, Jain worked with Satyam Infoway for the next two years. In 2001, he took control over Netcore Solutions, the firm that oversaw the software and enterprise solutions business of India World that did not go under the hammer. Today, Netcore claims it is the biggest digital marketing and campaign management solution provider of its kind in the country, and arguably among the biggest in the world. During this period, Jain reportedly had his second and most impactful brush with politics in India.

The BJP was looking for an SMS (short-messaging service) vendor in January 2009. That brought him in touch with Piyush Goyal, the current Union Minister for Railways. His company bagged the contract and days later, Jain (who belongs to a family that has supported the BJP for generations) teamed up with a bunch of people, including former banker Amit Malviya (who now heads the BJP’s IT cell), lawyer Hitesh Jain and others, to start a group of called “Friends of BJP.” This group was started in January 2009 to engage middle class citizens and get them to support Modi. The group’s initial efforts did not yield any significant results for the BJP. In May that year, the BJP-led NDA lost the 15th general elections.  

After almost a year, following a private meeting with Modi in April 2010, Jain got down to work with renewed vigour. He wanted to engineer a “wave election” for Modi to ensure a majority for the BJP in the Lok Sabha, as he himself wrote in a public blog post at emergic.org in June 2011. That year, things started picking up pace after he had multiple meetings with Modi and was introduced to Dr Hiren Joshi, Modi’s proverbial Man Friday in Gujarat. Joshi had been hand-picked by Modi to work with him in Gujarat after 18 years of teaching; he is currently officer on special duty or OSD in charge of information technology in the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi and, as will be subsequently elaborated upon, an extremely influential technocrat whose writ extends beyond information technology.

Jain started by launching NITI Digital, NITI being an acronym for New Initiatives to Transform India – the meaning of niti in Hindi, depending on its usage, is either policy or ethics. (Incidentally, the Planning Commission’s new avatar is NITI Aayog and in this instance, NITI stands for National Institution for Transforming India.) One of Jain’s key initiatives was NitiCentral.com, a pro-BJP news and opinions site, with journalist Kanchan Gupta as the editorial head – Gupta had earlier worked in the PMO in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government with the then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra and had later headed the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture in Cairo, Egypt.

In the coming years, NitiCentral would become one of the biggest online influencers of political opinion in favour of Modi. Jain also launched a volunteering platform, India272.com – the figure 272 is the half-way mark of the number of seats in the Lok Sabha – with support from B G Mahesh (a technology entrepreneur from Bengaluru) and Shashi Shekhar, who had at that juncture recently quit Infosys and returned to India from the US. (Shekhar is currently heading the government-owned broadcaster Prasar Bharati Corporation which runs Doordarshan and All India Radio.) Jain was later a part of the “272+” initiative in the run-up to the 16th general elections that took place in April-May 2014. More about these individuals in the next article in this series.

We contacted Rajesh Jain to speak about the pivotal role he reportedly played in designing and spearheading Modi’s online and social media campaign. He, however, declined to be interviewed.

Former television anchor with NDTV Shivnath Thukral (who was then working with the Essar group controlled by the Ruia family, before he went on to join the Carnegie Foundation in India and thereafter, Facebook India) along with an investment banker, Anuj Gupta, helped Hiren Joshi create and run Mera Bharosa (literally translated to mean “my trust”) and other web pages for the BJP. Gupta, a long-time associate of Piyush Goyal is at present OSD to the Union Minister for Railways. More about these key players – Katie Harbath of Facebook in the US, Rajesh Jain of Netcore in Mumbai, Shivnath Thukral of Facebook India, Hiren Joshi in the Prime Minister’s Office, Anuj Gupta in Railway Minister Goyal’s office and others in the next articles in this series.