Why did Facebook stop the promotion of The Caravan’s story on Amit Shah and Jay Shah?

30 August, 2018

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.

On 20 August, about ten days after The Caravan submitted the request to Facebook for review, I had a phone conversation with Amrit Ahuja, the director of communications for Facebook India. The following morning, I sent her an email with the following questions:

As we indicated [in] our review request, the post was not related to employment, credit opportunities or housing. Why was the promotion denied by Facebook?

Could you explain in detail how Facebook arrived at a conclusion regarding the nature of the story?

What do you mean by ‘multicultural affinity segment’? What was the reason Caravan was asked to comply with this particular provision?

Facebook said on August 10 that the review takes 3 days. It has been 10 days since the review request, and neither has the Caravan got a reply nor has the post been promoted. Why is this?

What are your guidelines for holding up promotions for news stories from Indian media organizations?

Can you give examples of 10 news stories from India from Facebook-verified media organisation accounts like Caravan that were not promoted? What were the reasons?

I did not receive a reply from Ahuja. Later that day, at around 7.30 pm, the digital marketing manager received an email from Facebook stating that The Caravan’s appeal on its decision had been approved, and that the post could now be boosted. In the case of an important news story that is part of a rapidly developing news cycle, a boost 11 days after its release is meaningless. I emailed Ahuja again on 23 August, noting that the boost had been approved and inquiring a second time about the reason for the delay in its approval. I asked whether Facebook’s algorithms had flagged the story or if there was human intervention in the decision. At the time this story was published, no reply had been received. Multiple calls to Ahuja went unanswered.

As some of the people I spoke to noted in their conversations, this incident comes in the wake of several significant changes in Facebook’s approach to news content. On 19 January 2018, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook Inc, announced a policy shift regarding news at the social network. He wrote on his Facebook page that the social network had introduced updates “to make sure the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.” Zuckerberg continued: “I’ve asked our product teams to make sure we prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local. And we're starting next week with trusted sources.”

Earlier this year, Zuckerberg had been asked by the US Congress to testify, following the Cambridge Analytica revelations, which indicated that the firm had hijacked the data of millions of Facebook users, which, in turn, was subsequently used to influence the US presidential elections. Zuckerberg testified on 11 April. In response to a question asked by a member of Congress about whether Facebook had the ability to detect a foreign entity attempting to buy a political ad, if that process was automated and whether there were procedures in place to inform key government players, the CEO said, “After we were slow to identify the Russian information operations in 2016, this has become a top priority for our company to prevent that from ever happening again, specially this year in 2018 which is an important election year with US midterms. But also major elections in India, Brazil, Mexico, Hungary, Pakistan and a number of other places. So we are doing a number of things around deploying new AI tools to proactively catch fake accounts that Russians or others may create to spread misinformation.”

In the same testimony, in response to a question by another member of Congress about whether Facebook subjectively manipulated its algorithms to prioritise or censor speech, Zuckerberg said, “We don't think what we are doing is censoring speech. I think there are types of content like terrorism that I think we all agree we do not want to have on our service. So we build systems that can identify those and remove that content and we are very proud of.”

It is not clear whether the selective bar faced by The Caravan on boosting the story regarding the BJP president Amit Shah was simply an outcome of unanticipated results from new Facebook algorithms, or the deliberate intervention of a human interface. Either possibility is hugely worrying, especially in the absence of any clarity from Facebook. Whatever the reason, Pratik Sinha, the founder of the website Alt News told me, Facebook needs to be transparent about what happened. “I don’t see any reason for Facebook to deny The Caravan’s boost because it is a verified and researched journalistic piece that deserves a wider readership. Either their content moderator is getting it wrong or I don’t know what role their algorithms are playing in this. But they need to be more transparent in terms of proper channels of communication so that media organisations can get responses.”