YouTube in India is failing to implement its policy on preventing misinformation related to elections from getting published on its platform, an investigation by rights groups Access Now and Global Witness has shown.

The groups submitted 48 advertisements in English, Hindi and Telugu to YouTube to test how the platforms deals with disinformation in India. The advertisements had content that was prohibited by YouTube’s policies on advertising and misinformation.

Despite this, all 48 of them were approved for publication. Access Now and Global Witness withdrew the advertisements before they were published.

One such advertisement falsely claimed that because of an increase in infectious diseases, all voters “will be automatically sent a mail-in ballot for the 2024 elections”. Another said that women could now vote by text message.

One advertisement also accused a religious group of offering bribes for votes. Another alleged that certain locations were hotspots for electoral fraud, and urged voters to help the police to “keep a sharp eye on these groups”.

All of the advertisements violated the community guidelines of Google, YouTube’s parent company.

The rights groups also pointed out that YouTube had successfully detected election disinformation in English and Spanish ahead of the midterm elections in the United States in 2022.

However, it had failed to detect similar content in Portuguese ahead of the 2022 elections in Brazil.

“The findings demonstrate that the platform has the means to moderate its content properly when it so chooses,” said the groups. “What is glaring is the difference between how YouTube enforced its policies depending on the context.”

This comes weeks ahead of the general elections when nearly 96.8 crore people will vote to elect the 543 members of the 18th Lok Sabha. The polling is scheduled to be held in seven phases from April 19 to June 1.

“By failing to implement its own policies around disinformation, YouTube raises serious questions about its role in ensuring that the upcoming Indian elections are free and fair,” said Namrata Maheshwari, senior policy counsel at Access Now.

She added: “Heading into the crucial election year of 2024, tech platforms made tall promises about safeguarding electoral integrity, but the proof is in the pudding.”

In response to the investigation, Google said that none of the 48 advertisements ran on its system.

“Our policies explicitly prohibit ads making demonstrably false claims that could undermine participation or trust in an election,” said a Google spokesperson. “We enforce this policy year-round, regardless of whether an election is taking place, and in several Indian languages, including Hindu and Telugu. Our enforcement process has multiple layers to ensure ads comply with our policies, and just because an ad passes an initial technical check does not mean it won’t be blocked or removed by our enforcement systems if it violates our policies.”

The spokesperson said that the advertisements in question were deleted before Google’s remaining enforcement reviews could take place.

Access Now and Global Witness responded by saying that they kept the advertisements submitted for long enough for YouTube to review and approve them for publication.

“In a fast election cycle where advertisers can publish an ad within hours, the damage is done once the ads go live, particularly on a platform that reaches over 462 million people in India,” said the rights groups. “YouTube has chosen a model with little friction around the publication of ads, instead suggesting violating content will later be removed, rather than adequately reviewing the content beforehand.”

The groups called the process “dangerous and irresponsible” in an election period and said there was no justification for why content containing election disinformation was rejected in the United States but accepted in India.

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