OpIndia: Hate speech, vanishing advertisers, and an undisclosed BJP connection
Media

OpIndia: Hate speech, vanishing advertisers, and an undisclosed BJP connection

Ashok Kumar Gupta, the director of OpIndia’s holding company, has had affiliations with the Sangh Parivar.

By Ayush Tiwari

Published on :

“In India, politics and journalism attract some of the worst brains, thanks to the system that has evolved over time,” read the About Us section of OpIndia, a popular Hindu supremacist website, in December 2014, nearly a year after it was launched. “OpIndia.com is an attempt to break free of this system.”

To break free of it, the section continued, the website offered journalism “that is free from the burden of liberal bias and political correctness”.

And yet, as of June 2020, about two dozen companies have withdrawn advertisements from OpIndia, citing “insidious content” and “hateful views”, as part of a campaign by Stop Funding Hate, an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom. Moreover, despite its complaints about dishonesty and distortion in the India media, OpIndia has never disclosed that the director of the company which owns it, and its holding company, has had ties to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In a 2014 interview with Swarajya, Rahul Raj, one of the three founders of OpIndia, explained the website’s raison d'être in greater detail. “These days when I look into posts by the media, I can clearly see that they are manipulating people. They are working as propaganda machines,” Raj said, adding that he wanted to “decode” why news consumers had to rely on media that was out to manipulate them. OpIndia, in his words, was started to explore the gap between “what is being reported and what the facts are”.

Six years down the line, OpIndia has morphed from a “media commentary” blog tilting towards the governing BJP into a website promoting and defending Hindu supremacy and chauvinism, and a vibrant source of misinformation targeting Muslims, liberals, leftists, “the establishment”, and critics and political opponents of the BJP.

A dataset prepared by Newslaundry shows that in the last two years alone, fact-checkers and news outlets have reported at least 25 instances of false news and no less than 14 instances of misreporting on OpIndia. In 2019, Rahul Raj, no longer associated with the website, tweeted that he had “distanced” himself from the website because it became a “blind mouthpiece of BJP”.

In May, the website was booked by the Bihar police for introducing a fabricated communal angle to the death of a 15-year-old boy in Gopalganj district. OpIndia had done a series of reports alleging that the minor had been killed in a “human sacrifice” ritual, supposedly to make a local mosque more powerful. The police clarified that the village did not have a mosque. In response, Rahul Roushan, OpIndia’s CEO, sulked that the website was facing “harassment” and “a coordinated attack from the usual suspects” and that the “only mistake” the website’s editors made “was that they were standing on the wrong side of the ideological divide”.

In 2019, OpIndia was denied a fact-checker certification by the International Fact-Checking Network citing bias, lack of data, and disparaging comments. In February this year, the website discovered that it had been blacklisted on Wikipedia, along with the BJP-adoring news website Swarajya and the Hindu nationalist blog TFIpost, the editorial arm of The Frustrated Indian.

OpIndia’s current avatar is similar to what a 2010 New Yorker profile of Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the far-right American website Breitbart, described as a “malcontent provider” – the “seething, sneering voice” of a constituency characterised as a “silenced majority”. To this, as a Newslaundry profile explored earlier this year, OpIndia adds dollops of incendiary false news and religious incitement, primarily targeting Muslims. It’s fair to say even Breitbart wouldn’t publish the sort of stuff that you’d routinely see on OpIndia.

Stop Funding Hate

Zalando News, Tylko, Hans Ander, MUBI India, Digital Ocean, Monster, WorldRemit, IPSoft, Berlin Packaging, Octopus Energy, Squarespace, CarMax, Sonic. These are international brands that have publicly withdrawn ads from OpIndia this year.

La Trobe University in Australia and the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand also decided not to advertise on the Hindu supremacist website. “We pride ourselves on being one of the most diverse and inclusive business schools in the world and would never seek to endorse such hateful views,” tweeted the Said Business School at the University of Oxford, UK. “We are taking urgent action to remove Opindia from our online advertising.”

Arturia, a French electronic company, said it regretted OpIndia’s “terrible association to our brand”, adding, “We already wrote an email to change our Google ad settings and exclude such websites as much as possible.”

LiveWorx, a digital technology event whose ads appeared on the website, said it had withdrawn them because of LiveWorx’s “strong position on inclusivity”.

GumGum, an California-based artificial intelligence company, expressed concern about OpIndia’s “insidious content”. “We have a strict whitelist governing which sites we serve our ads on and OpIndia.com is not on that site whitelist,” read an email by a GumGum official, shared on Twitter.

More significantly, the Rubicon Project, an American ad exchange that connects publishers and advertisers, also deleted OpIndia from its network after a prompt from Sleeping Giants, Stop Funding Hate’s “allies” in the United States. Newslaundry reached out to Rubicon Project with questions about its decision, but the company declined to comment.

These advertisers did not themselves blacklist OpIndia. They were poked to do so by Stop Funding Hate, which runs online campaigns to “make hate unprofitable and change the media for good”.

Founded in 2016, the campaign was spurred by a surge in hate crimes in Britain over the last decade, aimed at perceived foreigners, particularly Muslims, but not sparing other groups, like people with disabilities or the transgender community.

Richard Wilson, the co-founder and director of Stop Funding Hate, told Newslaundry that many in Britain suspected that the tone and tenor of the mainstream media was connected to this development. “A lot of people were very concerned at that time that there was a link between this surge and the kinds of headlines that had been appearing in Britain’s biggest selling newspapers, particularly the Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express,” Wilson said.

When he and his friends began brainstorming on how to arrest this rise in hate, they struck upon a crucial question: who was funding them? Leafing through one of the dailies notorious for xenophobic headlines, Wilson discovered that the company he worked with at the time was funding the newspaper.

“It was a personal connection and it made me feel that I was complicit,” he said.

In 2016, Professor Neil Chakraborti and Dr Stevie-Jade Hardy, who study hate at the University of Leicester in the UK, stated that hatred after the Brexit referendum in Britain was being “fuelled and legitimised by politicians and by the media”. The University of Cambridge had also highlighted earlier that year that the mainstream media’s coverage of Muslims was “contributing to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards Muslims in Britain”.

At Stop Funding Hate, Wilson’s attention turned to India over the past year, when people alerted him to the incendiary rhetoric in the Indian media. “I gave a talk at a United Nations workshop at the end of last year and literally the first question I was asked was, ‘Is there anything that you can do in India?’” Wilson said, adding that he was alerted to an OpIndia article on Twitter that said it was fine for non-Muslims to advertise that they do not hire Muslims.

“If that was published in any English language publication anywhere in the world, people would be saying that this is incitement to discrimination, which is a form of hate speech,” Wilson told Newslaundry. “It is written in English, funded by European advertisers using American ad tech, so I didn’t buy the idea that this is none of our business.”

Supporters of the Stop Funding Hate campaign in London.
Supporters of the Stop Funding Hate campaign in London. Courtesy: Stop Funding Hate

Wilson knew that OpIndia – “one of the most extreme publications that we have seen in a very long time” – was not the kind of platform that advertisers would want to associate with. So, when his team tweeted out a screenshot of the article and tagged advertisers, many brands responded by renouncing their ads on the website. “We amplified the concerns online, but the momentum came when we were joined by members of the Indian diaspora in Europe and Indians themselves,” he said.

“It doesn’t stop at the borders of India, it’s affecting our context as well,” Wilson told Newslaundry, pointing out that anti-Muslim commentators in Britain, whose access to the British media has shrivelled, have started earning interviews in the Indian media, like Katie Hopkins.

At its core, Stop Funding Hate’s strategy to target advertisers rests on the realisation that brands care deeply about their customer’s impression of them. Big brands especially pour significant money into public relations to market themselves as a force for good. “Companies like to tell customers that they are on their side, and that they stand for positive values, but when you point out to them publicly that they are funding negativity, it undermines their larger marketing strategy,” Wilson reasoned.

The campaign against hate has so far been a success in the West. Wilson told Newslaundry that for every 100 companies called out on Twitter, about 10 would publicly respond they were withdrawing advertisements. Tweets – because of the open, for-all-to-see world of social media – also fare way better than emails.

Sleeping Giants made over 4,000 advertisers blacklist Breitbart between 2016 and 2018. In 2018, an editorial shuffle at the Daily Express – one of the top three publications in Stop Funding Hate’s target list at the time – ended “Islamophobic sentiment” and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the paper, in the hope of winning over reluctant advertisers. Daily Mail, another fire-breathing anti-immigrant paper, regained more than 200 advertisers after it decided to “detoxify” and brought in a new editor, bringing down vitriolic headlines from more than 100 in 2016 to two in 2019.

Wilson thinks there is an “iceberg effect” at play in the campaign: while only a few advertisements express support openly, a greater number of brands tend to remove their ads from hate-mongering websites without any public acknowledgement.

At Newslaundry, we reached out to 10 brands that advertise on OpIndia, including Lenskart, VDO.AI, Magicbricks, Newchic, DIFC FinTech, Vaya, John Jacobs and FDI India. Their ads appeared alongside a report published on the website in February, claiming a temple in Northeast Delhi had been “forcibly occupied” and “attacked” by “frenzied Islamist fundamentalists” during the Delhi communal carnage.

Newslaundry had fact-checked the story from the ground and found it to be false. In fact, OpIndia’s misinformation streak in the immediate aftermath of the communal carnage in Delhi arguably amounted to criminal incitement against Muslims. So we asked these brands, with their ads positioned on OpIndia by Google AdSense, what they thought of their indirect association with the website.

Lenskart and FDI India advertisement alongside the false OpIndia report.
Lenskart and FDI India advertisement alongside the false OpIndia report.
Magicbricks and NewChic ads alongside the false OpIndia report.
Magicbricks and NewChic ads alongside the false OpIndia report.
DIFC Fintech and Vaya ads alongside the false OpIndia report.
DIFC Fintech and Vaya ads alongside the false OpIndia report.
VDO.AI’s advertising widget alongside the false OpIndia report.
VDO.AI’s advertising widget alongside the false OpIndia report.

Only three of the 10 brands got back to Newslaundry. DIFC FinTech Hive, a Dubai-based network of financial technology start-ups, told us over email that OpIndia’s content “goes against our values and we have stopped advertising on this site,” adding, “We have also taken the actions necessary to ensure future campaigns do not appear on this site as well.”

A popular Indian news aggregator also reached out to Newslaundry to affirm this. It asked to remain anonymous.

Adidas reached out to Newslaundry to “strongly condemn any such platform or activity”.

“As you may understand due to the nature of programmatic buying it is difficult to scrutinise machine learning and segregate the platforms on the internet. However, our efforts and those of the agency partners to be vigilant and post your email, we have made sure that we as a company have no association indirectly/directly with the said platform,” said a company spokesperson, adding,“We stand committed to stay vigilant and with support of partners like you we continue to take necessary steps in the right direction.”

Lenskart, Magicbricks, Vaya, FDI India, VDO.AI and John Jacobs did not respond to us and their ads still appear on OpIndia.

BJP link in OpIndia’s ownership?

In an OpIndia article in May, CEO Rahul Roushan claimed that the Stop Funding Hate campaign — “this campaign by soft Islamists” — had not affected the website’s revenue, which had in fact increased substantially. “Ads are there on the website as extra revenues and they never hurt anyone. However, the bulk of our revenues are in the form of voluntary payments by our readers, who pay us for the content they have already consumed,” he wrote, adding that OpIndia had witnessed a “700% jump” thanks to voluntary payments.

The About Us section of the website states that besides these “micropayments”, it’s “partly funded via personal savings” of the founders, Roushan, and Nupur Sharma, who is also the editor of OpIndia.

It adds: “Kaut Concepts, an independent private investment fund based in Delhi has also invested in the company.”

The company that owns OpIndia is Aadhyaasi Media And Content Services. Till July 2018, this private limited for-profit company was, in turn, owned by Kovai Media Private Limited, whose star investor was Mohandas Pai, a former Infosys director who owned a little more than three percent of the company on March 31, 2017. NR Narayana Murthy’s Catamaran Ventures owned about two percent of Kovai Media.

In November 2018, Aadhyaasi Media ended this arrangement and became a separate entity. Documents filed with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs in 2019 show that Aadhyaasi Media is now a subsidiary of Kaut Concepts Management Pvt Ltd, which bought 98 percent of the company’s shares in January 2019, with Roushan and Sharma diluting their stakes from 50 percent each to one percent each. Kaut Concepts also owns 26 percent shares in TFI Media, an associate company that runs the Hindu nationalist blog The Frustrated Indian.

In turn, a company called Sunrise Infinlease owns 99.999 percent of shares in Kaut Concepts, with one Sunil Prakash Goel owning the remaining 0.001 percent. In its filings with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Sunrise Infinlease described its “main product/service” thus: “To carry on the business of transfer agents, share brokers, sub-brokers, merchant bankers, underwriters, portfolio management, lead managers, registrar to the issue and management consultants.”

Sunrise Infinlease lists 31 individuals as its shareholders, mostly Delhi-based businessmen and their family members. Within this group, one Sanjeev Kumar Jain and members of his family own over 33 percent of the shares in the company. Newslaundry reached out to Sanjeev Kumar Jain and Sunrise Infinlease. Jain chose not to respond and we haven’t received a response from the company.

Aadhyaasi Media, which registered a profit of Rs 10 lakh in 2018-19, lists three directors — editor Nupur Sharma, Shaili Raval (Roushan’s wife), and Ashok Kumar Gupta.

Gupta, 63, is also a director at Kaut Concepts. Although a document filed by Kaut Concepts under Companies Rules, 2014, declares that Gupta is not a director in any other company, he is listed as an additional director in TFI Media and a director in Pune-based Yugasmita Innovations Pvt Ltd, which claims to be involved in advertising and market research. He is also a director at the Delhi-based Headtree Solutions Pvt Ltd, which runs a property business in the National Capital Region.

In 2018-19, Kaut Concepts generated a total revenue of Rs 1.45 crore, with Rs 4.5 lakh in profit.

Gupta has a blog where he used to post notifications about properties and his views on social and political matters, the kind one would expect from an investor in Hindu supremacist outlets, such as “I am of the opinion that Non-Hindus should not be allowed entry into Garba celebrations because it is a religious celebration,” and “It is true that all Muslims are not terrorists but most of the terrorists are Muslims, what is the reason for this?”

But interestingly, Gupta’s blog and his social media activity reveal a connection with the RSS, the BJP, and its senior leaders. On Facebook and Instagram, he has pictures of himself campaigning for the BJP, attending its election rallies, speaking at party functions, and with Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Vijay Goel, and Madan Lal Khurana, among others.

Gupta addressing a BJP public meeting to welcome Arun Jaitley.
Gupta addressing a BJP public meeting to welcome Arun Jaitley.
Gupta with Narendra Modi in an undated picture.
Gupta with Narendra Modi in an undated picture.
Gupta speaking at a BJP function in Karol Bagh, Delhi.
Gupta speaking at a BJP function in Karol Bagh, Delhi.
Gupta with Arun Jaitley in an undated picture.
Gupta with Arun Jaitley in an undated picture.
Gupta with Sushma Swaraj in an undated picture.
Gupta with Sushma Swaraj in an undated picture.
Gupta with Atal Behari Vajpayee in an undated picture.
Gupta with Atal Behari Vajpayee in an undated picture.
Gupta with LK Advani in an undated picture.
Gupta with LK Advani in an undated picture.
Gupta with Vijay Goel in an undated picture.
Gupta with Vijay Goel in an undated picture.

In a 2013 post on his blog, Gupta criticised RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s views on sexual assault and women, and stated that he has been a member of the RSS since he was 10 years old.

Gupta’s blog post from January 2013.
Gupta’s blog post from January 2013.

OpIndia — notwithstanding its claims of editorial independence and conspiratorial speculations about the funding of other media organisations has never made any disclosure about Gupta and his political affiliations.

Newslaundry reached out to Gupta over the phone, but he declined to comment. We sent him a set of questions about his association with the BJP and RSS, the nature of his investment in OpIndia, the police investigation into the website, its funding, and the recent withdrawal of advertisements. We have not received a response yet.

Newslaundry sent a detailed set of questions to OpIndia. This report will be updated if a response is received.

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