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5 Questions to BJP on HuffPost’s ‘Secret Propaganda Machine’ Story

Now we know that pages like Nation With NaMo, which have spent Rs 4.5 cr on election ads, are linked to BJP.

Published
Elections
4 min read
5 Questions to BJP on HuffPost’s ‘Secret Propaganda Machine’ Story

Huffington Post India, on Thursday, published an investigative story on how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turned a women’s NGO into a secretive but highly influential propaganda machine.

According to the HuffPost story, the Association of Billion Minds (ABM), an in-house election consultancy that works in the shadows, has “a licence to speak truth to BJP president Amit Shah.”

It not only advised Shah on suitable candidates but also runs a massive propaganda and misinformation campaign online. The investigation has blown the lid off an important question – who runs the popular pro-BJP websites and Facebook pages like NationWithNamo, Bharat ke Mann ki Baat, My First Vote for Modi and Modi 11?

Answer: Association of Billion Minds.

Following these revelations, The Quint poses five questions to the BJP on the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

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Nation With NaMo & Co Spent Rs 4.5 cr on Election Ads on Facebook. Is BJP Funding it?

Three proxy BJP pages, Nation With NaMo, My First Vote for Modi and Bharat ke Mann ki Baat are among the biggest spenders on elections advertisements on Facebook. The three have collectively spent Rs 4.5 crore on 13,208 advertisements since February 2019.

The HuffPost story has now revealed that all these pages along with four other ones, including Modi 11, are run by the Association of Billion Minds, which in turn is the BJP’s “extremely low-profile in-house sounding board”, known internally as Amit Shah’s personal team.

What exactly is the BJP’s financial relationship with ABM?

Is BJP Actively Backing Fake News on Social Media ?

The next question that follows is about the content peddled by pages like Nation with NaMo, My First Vote for Modi and Bharat ke Mann ki Baat. What kind of posts are these pages putting up and what kind of election ads are they paying for ?

A particularly blatant but striking example of misinformation and problematic content is a recent page Modi 11. Non existent till 4 March, this Facebook page has spent Rs 2.2 lakh between 24 and 30 March on 745 advertisements.

A look at its website reveals neatly categorised topics and within each topic is a cache of hundreds of memes ready to be shared. Most memes either contain dubious statistics or patently false claims about the achievements of the incumbent PM Modi-led government or about Opposition leaders and parties.

Given that these pages have now been revealed to be directly linked to the BJP, how does the ruling party justify the unabashed propagation of misinformation from these pages?

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Not Just Fake News, Why Was ABM Running Fake News Outlets ?

The investigation, referring to a story by fact-check site, BOOM Live, detailed fictitious news websites like Express Bangalore, Bangalore Herald, Bengaluru Mirror and Bengaluru Times which “peddled political propaganda” and posted “inflammatory content” directed at non-BJP parties.

“The Bangalore Herald website published multiple articles with fake survey results that were attributed to fictitious polling agencies, predicting a massive victory for the BJP,” according to the HuffPost story.

These websites vanished soon after BJP’s loss in the Karnataka state Assembly elections. However, sites like Bangalore Herald are redirecting to a site Bharatpositive.in, a website with a Facebook page having close to 1 million followers. Among the patently false news propagated by this site, one of their stories claimed that activist Shehla Rashid had stolen the money donated to the family of a minor Muslim girl who had been raped and murdered.

This website Bharat Positive, the investigation found, was registered to an ABM-administered domain.

Did BJP Actively Offer Bribes for Votes Through Its Proxy FB Pages?

On 24 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi retweeted a tweet by “NaMo Merchandise”, endorsing the “attractive merchandise” and asking his followers, “have you ordered yours?”

On 26 March, one of the largest political advertisers on Facebook in India, a pro-BJP page called “My First Vote for Modi”, ran advertisements offering freebies from the same NaMo Merchandise in exchange for a pledge to vote for Modi.

In the last month (February-23 March), “My First Vote for Modi” spent a total of Rs 61.72 lakh, on 5,984 advertisements. The freebies on offer include t-shirts, badges, backpacks, phone covers and caps.

Now, Congress leader Divya Spandana has written to Election Commission claiming that this process “amounts to bribery” and has demanded “the page and the network of websites that support it be taken down immediately.”

Given that My First Vote for Modi is run by the ABM, was the BJP leadership aware of this offer of freebies for votes? Since PM Modi himself endorsed these products and given that BJP has a link to this page through ABM, does this amount to bribing voters and a gross violation of the Model Code of Conduct ?
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Has BJP Informed the EC of its Relation with Association of Billion Minds?

On 10 March, the Election Commission of India announced that it will ‘closely monitor’ social media platforms for objectionable content and advertisements.

Candidates will have to furnish details of money spent on political advertisements on social media platforms at the time of filing nominations.

Any advertisement by candidates will have to be pre-certified by a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee.

However, the EC says nothing on political ads by non-candidates who might be supporters of a party. According to the investigation, even though all the top spending pro-BJP pages are run by ABM, the BJP has managed to distance itself from the pages.

It is unlikely that the party has intimated the EC of its relation with these pages, even though their addresses on Facebook all have the official address of the BJP headquarters.

More importantly, will the Election Commission take note of this and act on it?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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