New report: Meta helping far-right networks reach millions of Indian voters with Islamophobic hate ads

April 18, 2024

Shadow advertising network spent USD 1M in 90 days, including on ads that may breach electoral law  

– 38 Indian and int’l groups publish letter to Meta calling for action

(Full report available here)

Days before India’s national election begins, new research has revealed how pro-Modi shadow networks are paying Meta to spread Islamophobic and Hindu supremacist hate ads to tens of millions of voters, threatening to undermine the outcome of history’s biggest ever democratic exercise.

The research, produced by campaign group Ekō in partnership with human rights organisations India Civil Watch International and Foundation the London Story, uncovered a network of far-right shadow advertisers, many of which use memes, short-form video content and political cartoons to dehumanise and deride minorities or opposition parties. 

22 such advertisers were found to have spent 1M USD in 90 days between December and March, accounting for almost 22% of the total ad spend for “issues, elections or politics” on Meta in India across the period. Shadow advertising refers to spending meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not publicly disclosed or is difficult to trace, and which typically falls outside of regulatory scrutiny. 

The findings come as 38 Indian diaspora groups and allies worldwide published a letter calling on social media corporations to urgently enforce an election silence period and ban all political ads for 48 hours before elections, in accordance with Indian law. 

The report, Slander, Lies, and Incitement: India’s million dollar election meme network, also identified:

  • 36 ads potentially breaking Indian election laws pushing hate speech, Islamophobia, communal violence, and misinformation amassing between 65-66M impressions. 
  • Ads depicting Muslims as sexually violent invaders and calls for India to be a “country for Hindus” only 
  • Ads depicting the opposition to the BJP as a "virus", “demon”, and “poisonous snake” and violent rhetoric to "break their spine”
  • A coordinated network of pages sharing content, hashtags and ad payments, which amassed 10.53M interactions over 90 days and appears to have breached Meta’s ad transparency policy
  • 23.13M interactions on 22 far-right publisher pages over 90 days

Ekō campaigner Maen Hammad said: “Meta operates with a mercenary mindset, allowing the highest bidder to weaponise its platform for hate -- in this case by spreading Islamophobic and Hindu supremacist propaganda to millions of voters. It's a flagrant lack of humanity that not only poses a direct challenge to Indian democracy but serves as a chilling preview for upcoming elections around the world.”

Founding director of Foundation the London Story, Dr. Ritumbra Manuvie said: “Meta is again serving as a megaphone of hate in India, with bad actors spending huge sums of money to distort election narratives. While Meta reaps the profits, decades of work from civil society to support Indian democracy face upheaval.”

India’s national election starts on 19 April and will be staggered across six weeks, with the final stage on 1 June. It is the biggest democratic exercise in history and part of a year of elections which will see around 1.5 billion people from over 50 countries go to the polls. Despite endless warnings from experts and campaigners, and mounting instances of social-media fuelled electoral violence in countries including the US and Brazil, Meta has failed to take effective action to safeguard these elections from digital threats.

The report’s authors are calling on Meta to urgently follow the recommendations of 30+ Indian and international civil society organisations, including adopting an election silence period of 48 hours prior to voting; vetting who they receive money from; banning shadow advertisers and ensuring fact-checkers in India can label mis- and disinformation ads.

For more information or interviews contact:

EU Timezone: Flora Rebello Arduini
+44 07399 141498

US Timezone: Maen Hammad

+1 248 444 8806