On 10 August, The Caravan published an article detailing how the BJP’s national president Amit Shah mortgaged two of his properties to enable his son Jay Shah’s firm Kusum Finserve LLP to obtain credit facilities from a cooperative bank. The BJP president’s contingent liability with respect to this credit facility was, however, missing from his 2017 electoral affidavit. Kusum Finserve has recorded dramatic increase in credit facilities in recent years despite its poor finances. The same day, The Caravan shared the story on its verified Facebook page. As part of its effort to ensure that the news story reached the widest possible audience, The Caravan then put in a request to the social network to boost the story—a facility provided by Facebook to media organisations to help promote their posts among a specified audience. Over the past year, scores of similar requests have been placed by the company’s digital-marketing team. But this was the first instance in which its digital-marketing manager received a reply from Facebook stating that The Caravan’s post had not been boosted because it “doesn’t follow Facebook’s advertising policies.”
Facebook termed the boost an ad, and stated that the request to promote the post had been denied because it “may be for housing, employment or credit opportunities,” or that it “included a multicultural affinity segment in your audience.” The social network’s notification continued: “If so, you’ll need to certify that you’ll comply with our policy prohibiting discrimination and with applicable anti-discrimination laws. Once you certify, we’ll review any disapproved ads from the past three days. Typically, this review takes a few minutes.”
The same day, The Caravan appealed Facebook’s decision on the post. Through its verified page, the publication clicked on the option to submit the post for review, and added a note clarifying that the post was regarding a news story of political relevance. Over the next week, no reply was received on the review request.
At this point, The Caravan took an editorial decision to approach the subject as an issue of public importance. Chinmayi Arun, an assistant professor of law at the National Law University, Delhi, who is member of the India Internet Governance Forum and member of UNESCO India’s Press Freedom Committee told The Caravan, “Credible news organisations need a fair chance to reach audiences. They should have the same access to the public sphere and to readers as their contemporaries do.’’
I contacted various internet researchers as well as journalists, some of whose organisations use or have used this Facebook facility for their posts. One internet researcher said that it was likely that the social network’s algorithm flagged keywords in the post, while a journalist said that it is easy for posts to get caught in Facebook’s algorithms for reviewing content. Another person I spoke to suggested that Facebook’s ad policies had become more strict after news broke that Russian agents had allegedly used the platform to influence the 2016 US Presidential elections. Another alluded to the fact that earlier this year, Facebook had taken a policy decision to deprioritise news in favour of more personal interactions between its users. One of them said that there was talk in the journalist community that Facebook may be censoring speech, but “no substantiation.” None of the news organisations I contacted reported a similar instance of a news story being denied a boost, although some said it happened due to images that violated the social network’s policies.