Are we reading Facebook’s takedown of more than 1,000 accounts the wrong way?
There is more at stake than what will happen to political parties whose pages have been taken down.
Facebook shattered the social media ecosystem in India on April 1. In a highly detailed blog post, it announced that it had removed more than 1,000 pages and accounts that were indulging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” (CIB) and spreading of “spam”. The two are distinct categories.
CIB is a behaviour pattern where there is a coordinated effort between multiple accounts and pages to push certain posts. Many of these accounts make it a point to conceal their identities.
Spam is what the word says it is: Flooding pages and accounts with posts.
This crackdown by Facebook is not based on content or the nature of content. It is based on social media behaviour patterns.
The morning of April 1, I was just about to start research on propaganda pages and what Facebook’s new “page transparency” feature meant for them. I had already looked at the “Nation with Namo” page and found that it started off with a completely different name.
Starting with a politically neutral name is a common strategy. When the page has built enough followers, its name is then changed to a politically-charged one. Most people do not even notice; let alone go back and unfollow the page.
When I checked the number of ads run, an amount of more than Rs. 1 crore had been spent on political ads.
The ads were mainly aimed at parties opposing the BJP with a disproportionate number aimed at the Congress.
By the time I reached the other pages I had listed down, most of them had been removed in the brutal Facebook takedown. Most notable amongst them was The India Eye, which Facebook has named and shamed in its blog post.
Run by Silver Touch Technologies Ltd., the page had a reach of 2.5 lakhs. Interestingly, fact-checking website AltNews had already run a full background check on Silver Touch Technologies in September last year. AltNews found that Silver Touch has worked with multiple government departments as well as created PM Modi’s NaMo app.
Silver Touch had denied any association with The India Eye page then and continues to deny it now also.
Post Card Fans, Nation Wants Namo, and (the mired-in-controversy) PostCard News were all taken down by the time I could do background runs on them using the new transparency feature.
But interestingly, 678 of the pages and accounts taken down were specifically named, by Facebook, as those run by an IT cell of the Congress.
You would think that this move by Facebook would affect the reach of the Opposition during this election. But that’s viewing it from the surface.
The reach of a local Congress IT cell page would be in the range of thousands or tens of thousands. This is because the party was late to the social media game and is still trying to get a proper slice of the social media pie.
The reach of just one of the pro right-wing pages, like The India Eye, is over 20 lakhs. Fifteen pages run by Silver Touch were removed. Just the reach from these 15 pages would surpass the reach of 100 of the Congress’ local IT cell pages.
But, does this mean that Facebook has somewhat succeeded in its endeavour to stop the platform from being used to manipulate people?
Considering my exercise of tracking the history of propaganda pages had failed because many of the pages I had shortlisted had been taken down, you could say a tentative yes.
But, we’re asking the wrong question here.
The real eye-opener in this entire episode is the fact that the entities named in Facebook’s blog post were all either run by official bodies or those connected to official bodies: Silver Touch, which is associated with the NaMo App and government departments; one of the Congress’ IT cells; and ISPR (Inter-Service Public Relations) of the Pakistani military.
The reality is stark and quite scary. It looks like governments, the military, and political parties are all knowingly spreading propaganda in a coordinated and planned manner.
The post-truth world is now official business.