[Trigger Warning: Violent and graphic content]

As India gears up for the general elections 2024, the polling for which is to be held in seven phases from April 19 to June 1, Meta-owned social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have become a battlefield for political advertisements. Consequently, the focus has also increasingly shifted to the policies of these platforms and their subsequent enforcement.

Political parties in India are known to invest significant financial resources in online advertising in their efforts to capture the voters’ attention. In just the last three months, the expenditure on political advertising has reportedly reached Rs 102.7 crores with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leading in this expenditure, having officially spent over Rs 37 crore in online advertisements alone. This figure is 300 times more than what the main opposition party spent.

Amidst this extensive digital campaign, we found that a Facebook page named MemeXpress has invested over Rs 1 crore in political advertisements, mainly targeting opposition parties while promoting the BJP. According to the Meta Ad Library, the page was created on 12 December 2023 and has already published more than 310 political advertisements so far. Furthermore, our investigation found that four of these ads contain the video of the murder of Atiq Ahmed, a former one-time MP, five-time MLA and accused in multiple cases, which clearly violate Meta’s advertising standards against sensational and excessively violent content.

Note: Due to the excessive violence depicted in the content, we have blurred part of the video

The advertisements are captioned, “Just one bulldozer is needed in Bengal; all the stubborn Shahjahans will fall in line.” The upper half of the ad displays a video of the attack on Atiq Ahmed which caused his death, with the text “Criminals in UP” superimposed. Meanwhile, the lower half features a video of Shahjahan Sheikh, the primary accused in the violence in Sandeshkhali, West Bengal, being arrested and brought to Basirhat Court. The text in the lower segment reads “Criminals in West Bengal”. Needless to say, the advertisement glorifies and exalts extrajudicial violence, implying that Sheikh Shahjahan should receive the same treatment as Atiq Ahmed.

Meta’s policies explicitly prohibit content that glorifies violence. Their advertising standards state that advertisements should not contain shocking, sensational or excessively violent content, which also includes graphic crime scenes. Despite this, the ads in question are not only extremely violent but also extols murder. On Facebook, two versions of this advertisement ran uninterrupted from March 8 to March 15, garnering over 20 lakh views

Upon checking the Meta Ad Library, we found that one of these advertisements running on Instagram was flagged and removed on March 9 for not complying with Meta’s advertising standards. On the other hand, another version of the same advertisement continued to run on Instagram till March 16, with a total of more than 10 lakh 45 thousand views.

This ad raises serious questions about Meta’s ability to effectively enforce its policies. With over 3 million views, the continued presence of these controversial ads on the platform highlights the disparity between Meta’s policy and practice, exemplifying their failure during this sensitive, high-stakes election period.

Meta’s negligence in implementing its policies reaffirms the importance of vigilance and accountability by platforms. With the elections fast approaching, the role of digital governance is becoming increasingly important. It is pertinent for platforms like Meta to show their commitment towards ensuring a responsible and safe online space by taking prompt action against content that violates their community standards.

In an email to Meta, we inquired why their moderation system failed in this case. Furthermore, we asked them how they plan to thwart attempts to weaponize their platforms during this election season and what actions would be taken against pages that clearly violate Meta platform rules.

In response to our inquiries, a Meta spokesperson informed us that they reviewed the content flagged by Alt News and found it to be in violation of Meta’s standards, and took action accordingly. However, they did not clarify the nature of the action they had taken.

As political parties start to rely on social media for election campaigning, the necessity for a transparent mandate for policy implementation by the platforms is becoming increasingly evident. The effectiveness of Meta’s policies will be closely scrutinized not only by Indian voters but also by individuals who uphold democratic processes on the global stage.

Donate to Alt News!
Independent journalism that speaks truth to power and is free of corporate and political control is possible only when people start contributing towards the same. Please consider donating towards this endeavour to fight fake news and misinformation.

Donate Now

About the Author

Abhishek is a senior fact-checking journalist and researcher at Alt News. He has a keen interest in information verification and technology. He is always eager to learn new skills, explore new OSINT tools and techniques. Prior to joining Alt News, he worked in the field of content development and analysis with a major focus on Search Engine Optimization (SEO).