In December 2019, when the situation was tense in Jammu & Kashmir after the scrapping of article 370, digital ad agency Dentsu Webchutney and Vice Media (both foreign-owned) launched an initiative to deliver an SMS (teletext)-based news service in the state.
The service was launched at a time when the government had blocked internet and mobile SMSes to maintain law and order in the state that had a history of violent and anti-India protests.
According to a complaint made by a social activist Manoj Vashista to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Stealth News Service, as it was named, was not only used to deliver public interest messages but anti-India and pro-Pakistan stories as well.
Teletext is an SMS service, which mimics an internet webpage when the link is clicked.
“On December 24, 2019, when only machine-based SMS services were resumed for receiving OTPs or academic messages, Vice Media and Webchutney came up with an initiative/campaign, which they call Stealth SMS News, directly implying they knew it was ‘forgery’. Through this, Vice’s news stories, including provocative and undermining national security, were converted into teletext and dispatched to lakhs of Kashmiris through SMS,” said the complaint, which has been accessed by BestMediaInfo.com.
To put things in perspective, full-fledged SMS services resumed on January 1, 2020, after which people were allowed to send personal SMSes.
The Supreme Court had termed the ban on the internet unlawful on January 10, 2020, long after the launch of the Stealth SMS News.
After the court’s ruling, the Government of India (GOI) resumed 2G internet services on January 19, 2020, but made only 153 'white-listed' sites accessible on postpaid connections. It, however, blocked access to news portals and social media sites.
Vice Media had claimed reaching 12 lakh people through the SMS service and an 86% conversion rate.
The campaign case study was entered at various awards, including Kyoorius and Cannes Lions.
For the Indian awards, the agency’s case study showed only light-hearted and subtle news stories.
However, in an entry at Cannes Lions, a 10-second clip (0:45 to 0:55) was added, showing curated news content that included stories such as, “This is what Eid in Kashmir looked like”; “Censoring the internet, locking up women and other problematic ideas Indian ministers are suggesting to prevent rape”; “WhatsApp is kicking out the Kashmiris”; “Pakistan rage over India’s ‘Occupation’ of Kashmir Explodes into the streets: ‘I am ready to die’ ”; and “India’s new citizenship law specifically excludes Muslims”—which appeared provocative, especially to Kashmiris, given the situation.
The case study submitted for the Indian award:
The case study submitted for the international award (Cannes Lions):
Both Dentsu Webchutney and Vice Media did not respond to queries sent by BestMediaInfo.com.
The intention of launching the campaign in Kashmir, while knowing it bypasses government orders, remains unclear.
“Why an ad agency wanted to fiddle with such a serious matter is still unknown. It can’t be just for winning awards at international circuits. Vice Media also didn’t undertake responsible journalism and it looked more like that they wanted to create unrest in Kashmir. I hope the government investigates the matter with all seriousness,” said the complainant.
The details of the campaign were thoroughly crosschecked by BestMediaInfo.com before the article was published.
The report will be updated once Dentsu Webchutney and Vice Media send in their responses.