How top Meta executive Shivnath Thukral has links with a firm that works for Modi and BJP

Shivnath Thukral, a public policy director, India, at WhatsApp Inc (owned by Facebook, now known as Meta) since March 2020, had once owned a stake in Opalina Technologies – a company that has provided software solutions for India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, the prime minister’s office, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the ministry of textiles in the union government.

Thukral, who remains one of Meta’s top lobbyists in India, gave up his stakes in Opalina before joining Facebook on October 24, 2017. But Opalina, where Thukral’s father still holds shares, continues to work for the BJP and Modi.

According to the registrar of companies in the government of India’s ministry of corporate affairs, Thukral – who is also former managing editor of NDTV Profit – was a director of Opalina Technologies between March 2015 and October 2017 and owned a 7.5 per cent stake in the company since October 2014.

Just nine days before he joined Facebook India, Thukral resigned as Opalina’s director. Around the same time, he transferred his shares in the company to his father Kul Bhushan Thukral. So, stakes in Opalina remained with the family, even though Shivnath Thukral himself had joined Facebook.

Thukral was public policy director (India and South Asia) at Facebook from October 2017 to March 2020, after which he left the post to become public policy director (India) at WhatsApp. Simultaneously, between October 2020 and September 2021, he was also interim public policy director (India, South and Central Asia) for Facebook after Ankhi Das’s controversial resignation.

Opalina was incorporated in April 2013. The majority shareholders of the company are Satish Chandra and Gaurav Sharma, a former Times Group employee, who are also directors in the company.

Thukral is known for his proximity with PM Modi. He had worked as a part of Modi’s election campaign in 2013 before Modi became India’s prime minister in May 2014. According to unnamed “former Facebook employees” quoted by Time magazine, “a key reason Thukral was hired in 2017 was because he was seen as close to the ruling party”.

Facebook India acknowledged his past association, stating to Time, “we are aware that some of our employees have supported various campaigns in the past both in India and elsewhere in the world”.

Madhu Kishwar, a vociferous supporter of the prime minister, too wrote in her book, Modi, Muslims and Media, that she was introduced to Modi by Thukral at a rally in Bharuch, Gujarat, in 2013.

Opalina’s projects for Modi and the BJP

Online evidence suggests Opalina developed software solutions for Modi’s social media presence and the BJP’s digital campaigns during Modi’s re-election in 2019.

These reporters found a Twitter bot – an autonomous programme on the internet that can interact with network systems or users – that tweeted from Modi’s Twitter account and a Facebook “profile photo frame”, both of which were used as a part of the BJP’s “main bhi chowkidar” campaign on social media a month before the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Both the Twitter bot and the Facebook photo frame were developed by Opalina.

a) Twitter bot for #MainBhiChowkidar

In the run-up to the 2019 election, Rahul Gandhi and the opposition Congress party devised a slogan to target the prime minister – “chowkidar chor hai”, or the watchman is a thief.

Modi had earlier campaigned as the chowkidar or “guardian” of India’s riches, ostensibly to prevent these from being looted by unscrupulous politicians and businessmen. Gandhi’s slogan was based on allegations that the Modi government had favoured a particular private corporate group, headed by Anil Ambani, in a deal to purchase 38 Rafale fighter jets manufactured by the French company Dassault Aviation.

Modi’s 2019 campaign managers turned the Congress’s slogan around by coining a counter-slogan, “main bhi chowkidar” (I, too, am a watchman). Modi and the BJP’s supporters were encouraged to post the slogan as a hashtag – #MainBhiChowkidar – on social media as part of the pre-election campaign. Users who tweeted with the hashtag were likely to receive a personalised tweet from Modi’s Twitter account @narendramodi.

These reporters found evidence that a Twitter bot developed by Opalina delivered these personalised response tweets from Modi’s Twitter handle.

What follows is a reconstruction of the steps that demonstrate this, and a few examples of response tweets from Modi’s account.

Tweet to user @SDFC_AB from @narendramodi: link | archive | screenshot.

Tweet to user @ProudHinduPS (handle used to be @Proud_Hindu_PS) from @narendramodi: link | archive | screenshot.

Tweet to user @VadicAyush (handle used to be @AyushTi14387767) from @narendramodi: link | archive | screenshot.

These tweets cannot be found through Twitter’s search function. For instance, a search for “from:narendramodi #MainBhiChowkidar” shows precisely one tweet and none of the response tweets. Also, if you go to the replies timeline of @narendramodi, these reply tweets aren’t listed there though they have originated from the same account.

The reply tweets show they were tweeted using a third-party Twitter client named “info 2020.”

Using Google’s advanced search technique, we could retrieve all the tweets from @narendramodi that were tweeted by this third-party client “info 2020.” See here.

It isn’t apparent from these tweets that the “info 2020” third-party Twitter client is an Opalina product. But these reporters found that Twitter accounts associated with Opalina Technologies have been testing the “info 2020” Twitter client for various similar hashtag campaigns for multiple clients. These tests appear to take place across a range of Twitter accounts used by Opalina.

For example, the Twitter handle @OpalinaDemo2 (link | archive | screenshot) has the Opalina Technologies logo as its profile picture. Among its 34 Twitter followers are Opalina co-founder Gaurav Sharma’s personal Twitter handle @gaurav0403 and other accounts associated with the company, including @OpalinaHelp and @opalina_clients (both of which also have the Opalina Technologies logo as their profile picture).

Another handle, @imagehost01, has the following description: “The root of all awesome stuff - By Opalina Technologies.”

These Twitter handles are involved in testing the functionality of hashtag campaigns.

Another example of such a test shows that the Twitter client “info 2020” is part of an Opalina product that is used to implement automated Tweet responses to hashtags for various clients. In this example, the client is Amazon’s Alexa brand, which ran a response tweet to a hashtag campaign using the “info 2020” Twitter client.

These reporters see proof that Opalina’s testing handles tested the Alexa campaign before its official launch and that those tests were also performed using the same “info 2020” Twitter client.

The campaign was launched on November 3, 2020. While the campaign was active, any user who tweeted using the hashtag #AlexaHappyBirthday received an automated tweet from the Alexa Twitter account @Alexa99. Examples of these automated responses can be seen below.

Note that these automated responses from the @Alexa99 account have also been tweeted using the same “info 2020” Twitter client.

Testing handles like @OpalinaDemo2 were testing out the campaign from October 31, 2020, a few days prior to the launch.

@OpalinaDemo2 had also tweeted the following: “This is a promoted CTA tweet, please reply to this tweet with #123ComplexHashtag456 and an emoji.”

CTAs are calls to action to convert users to customers, and a way of enticing a social media audience to focus on the action desired.

Various handles in the set of Opalina testing handles respond with the hashtag and multiple permutations of emojis and text. Here is one such response to the Opalina testing handle @imagehost01:

Note that @OpalinaDemo2 responds with one of the automated Alexa birthday responses. The automated response is from the same Twitter client, “info 2020”. Clearly, in this testing stage, instead of the responses coming from @Alexa99, the responses are coming from @OpalinaDemo2. The trigger hashtag for the response is #123ComplexHashtag456 instead of #AlexaHappyBirthday.

Even after the campaign was launched, this testing hashtag was still functional for some time.

Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign was also implemented by using the same Twitter client product developed by Opalina.

b) Facebook photo frame for #MainBhiChowkidar

Similarly, Opalina also developed a Facebook profile picture frame for the same “main bhi chowkidar” campaign.

At 10.17 am on March 24, 2019, the Facebook page of then BJP president Amit Shah unveiled the party’s #MainBhiChowkidar campaign for Facebook. Shah’s page changed its profile picture – specifically, it added a “frame” to the profile photo that superimposed a photo of Modi at the bottom right and text “Main Bhi Chowkidar” in Hindi at the bottom left.

This Facebook photo frame appears to have been created by Opalina. Its employees could be seen testing it out before its launch by Amit Shah’s page.

A Facebook account named “George George”, which appears to be run by Opalina employees, held a last-minute test of the frame until about two hours before the product went live. The account posted a photograph with the same frame at 8.43 am the same day Amit Shah posted it.

But how do we know “George George” is, in fact, an Opalina testing account?

This account has three Facebook friends – “Satish Opalina”, “Dsm Siva”, and “Jeya JJ”.

Dsm Siva lists his employer as Opalina Technologies on his Facebook profile. Jeya JJ too lists his employer as Opalina Technologies on his LinkedIn profile. Satish Opalina appears to be another testing account with only two friends – Satish Chandra, who was one of the directors of Opalina, and the “George George” account.

Around the same time “George George” update their profile picture using the #MainBhiChowkidar frame, Dsm Siva also updated his profile picture with the frame. Dsm Siva posted the photo at 8.50 am on the same day, 83 minutes before Amit Shah’s post.

c) Opalina products used to moderate comments on Modi’s Facebook page, manage letters received by PMO

An Opalina employee named Vimal Kumar, in his resume that was earlier uploaded to his LinkedIn profile, described the projects he executed for his company. Kumar’s resume, which is no longer visible on his LinkedIn profile, was retrieved and archived by these reporters while it was still visible.

When contacted, Kumar claimed he didn’t execute these projects and it must have been a mistake on his part to mention those projects in his Linkedin profile.

Kumar’s resume described two projects that he worked on executing.

The first is the “NM Comments Moderation Panel”, which was described as a panel for the moderation of comments received from users on Narendra Modi’s Facebook page.

The second project listed in Vimal Kumar’s resume was for the prime minister’s office, or PMO, an institution of the Indian government. This project, named “NM Letters”, is described as a content management system used in the PMO to manage letters received by it.

These reporters reached out to Kumar over the phone and asked him as to whether he had been asked by his employer (Opalina) to take down his resume from LinkedIn. He responded that he had not been asked to do so.

We asked him whether he had indeed worked on the projects that he had listed on his resume. He said that he had not.

Why then had he listed them on his resume? Vimal Kumar responded: “That must have been by mistake.”

However, these reporters could not independently corroborate Kumar’s claims as made in his resume that was previously available on his Linkedin profile.

d) Twitter bot for textile ministry’s ‘Cotton is Cool’ campaign

Even before Thukral joined Facebook, Opalina developed a Twitter hashtag campaign on May 16, 2017 for the Indian government’s textile ministry’s official Twitter handle and for union textiles minister Smriti Irani.

The hashtag #CottonIsCool was subsequently used by multiple high-profile Twitter users – including BJP leaders and verified profiles of journalists, influencers and public personalities – over the next few days, besides innumerable other Twitter users.

Minister Smriti Irani celebrated the success of the campaign on May 17, 2017.

Opalina can also be connected to a website, The True Picture, which supports Modi and is accused of spreading disinformation. Web searches reveal that articles uploaded to the website are also hosted on a www.opalina.in staging platform. The Delhi-based BlueKraft Digital Services runs this website.

Before Thukral’s stint with Facebook, Opalina also worked on other government projects.

A few months earlier, in September 2016, the Uttar Pradesh police department and Twitter unveiled a new partnership: a platform named TwitterSeva. Through the platform, the UP police could manage inputs it received from the public at large through more than 200 accounts and could coordinate its dissemination of information through Twitter.

The platform was built for Twitter by Opalina, as detailed by the then Twitter India official Raheel Khursheed in a blogpost.

Khursheed, now based in the US, agreed to speak to one of us on the record. He told us that he knew of Shivnath Thukral as a person who was “closely associated with Opalina, and acted as its advisor”.

On Opalina, he said: “Twitter has its partners. We had a system of partners that included a large number of companies to enhance our capacity. Opalina was one of these companies.”

Praising Opalina’s work, he added that it “was an important company to Twitter, we were very happy with their services; they would get the job done on time and were result-oriented and efficient”.

TwitterSeva was offered free to the police department of India’s most populous state, Khursheed told us, and as there was no financial transaction involved, there was no tender process. Subsequently, similar products were developed for various ministries in the government of India by Opalina, including the ministries of railways, external affairs, and textiles.

While no tenders have been floated by any of these government ministries for these social media-based customer-relationship management tools, many tenders were issued before these platforms were developed and later cancelled. These tenders had sought quotes for digital services that covered much of the same ground. These included tenders for implementing social media analytics solutions for various ministries and the MyGov.in website.

In the second week of June 2017, Opalina updated its website, adding “big data analytics” to its business portfolio and the government of India and Twitter to its list of clients.

Opalina’s finances also started improving. Its total revenue in 2013-14 (year ending March 31) was just about Rs 19 lakh, which rose to Rs 7.67 crore in 2017-18 and further to Rs 10.25 crore in 2020-21 (the last year for which financial data about the company is available).

These reporters sent questionnaires on April 18 to Thukral, textiles minister Piyush Goyal, textiles secretary Upendra Prasad Singh, former textiles minister Smriti Irani, and Opalina co-founders Gaurav Sharma and Ken Philip. Questionnaires were also sent to Hiren Joshi, officer on special duty for communications and information technology in the PMO, and Bipasha Chakrabarti, communications director, India, at Meta.

Only Opalina’s Gaurav Sharma has responded so far. His response is reproduced verbatim:

“The questions you pose to us are nothing further than a fishing and roving inquiry calling upon our company to share confidential and proprietary information to serve your oblique purposes. We also reserve our rights to take every possible step as we may be advised in accordance with law to protect our proprietary information and we will not hesitate to file criminal complaint for any attempt/ abetment for stealing any proprietary information owned by our company.”

We await the responses of the others and these will be added to the report as and when they are received.

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