A Round Peg to Plug a Square Hole
In early March, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, Sunil Arora announced the schedule for India’s 17th General Elections. With this announcement, the so called Model Code of Conduct (MCC) of the Election Commission came into effect. This is a set of guidelines aimed at levelling the playing field for parties and candidates in the run-up to the polls.
In 2018, the Election Commission had issued guidelines regarding the use of social media in campaigning; these mandated that candidates disclose all their social media accounts. Since then, candidates and parties are also required to report all spending on political advertisements on social platforms in accordance with the reporting guidelines for similar offline content.
The ECI has also constituted Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMC) at the state and district levels. These committees are empowered to review and certify all paid news and advertisements of a political nature that appear on electronic media. At least one member of the MCMC should be a social media expert. However, the educational and professional background of this social media expert is not detailed within the circular.
To combat fake news and misinformation on social media platforms, the Election Commission has directed Google, Facebook, Twitter, ShareChat, TikTok and other platforms to appoint grievance officers. Their role would be to serve as liaison to the ECI and remove any content that violates electoral laws and/or flagged by the ECI.
In a meeting with the ECI, organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) these platforms have also agreed on a Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Elections 2019. Most critically, under this code, the platforms have to comply with directions issued by the ECI in three hours during the 48 hours before the start of the election also known as the silent period. Facebook has created an Ad Library that makes the advertiser and money spent on ads public in an effort to make political communication easier to track and identify. Google committed to publish an India-specific Political Advertising Transparency Report and Searchable Political Ads Library during the election.
While the Election Commissioner has made it clear that his Commission intends to put into place a series of safeguards against political advertising on online platforms; there remains significant gaps in the ambit of the MCC. The Code doesnot take into account the increasing relevance of global and vernacular messaging applications like WhatsApp and ShareChat in the spread of fake news. This is purely due to a definitional difference between a social network and messaging platform; between broadcast and narrowcast. Social Media platforms allow a person to connect & share information with audiences that may not be part of his/her direct network while messaging applications allow a person to communicate with their immediate circle.
Additionally, while the ECI has instructed that no posters/banners of parties or government schemes are allowed to be shared on social media without its approval; the key question that comes to mind is, who will police that? Simply put, how can the ECI monitor the innumerable closed groups that exist on WhatApp and ShareChat on which political messaging and fake news propagates? This segues into the jurisdictional difference between political parties and their supporters. The ECI cannot prevent party supporters from sharing content individually as they lie outside the jurisdictional limits of the body.
The ECI has put into place many mechanisms to ensure that the 2019 General Elections are conducted in a free and fair manner. However, once the dust settles from these upcoming elections, it might be time for the new government to revaluate and expand the limits of the ECI’s power during the elections - to increase the oversight on political messaging online - the fundamental aspect of democracy and freedom of expression. Let the guardian of this process be empowered in accordance to current technology trends.
Rajat Kumar is the Program Manager Digital Transformation at the Regional Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in New Delhi. In this commentary he shares his personal views.