The dates of India’s General Elections may have been the most important pieces of information doled out by the Election Commission of India at its press conference of Sunday. But the briefing also gave Indians a chance to hear about the Commission’s preparations for the 17th Lok Sabha elections, which begin on April 11 and carry on until May 19, with counting on May 23. The Commission explained what it intends to do about social media, a medium that any regulator would struggle to contain in the best of times, let alone in the middle of a high-pitch election season.
These are the Commission’s guidelines:
- Candidates must declare their social media accounts.
- All political advertisements on social media must be certified by the Commission.
- Candidates and parties have to declare expenditure on social media, making it part of the overall spending limit.
- The provisions of the Model Code of Conduct will apply to social media.
Beyond this, the Commission also worked with the Internet and Mobile Association of India, which features web behemoths like Facebook, Google and Twitter, to carve out some guidelines for companies like those which are called intermediaries. The companies have committed to starting awareness programmes, deploy fact checkers, take action against fake accounts and ensure that political advertising is transparent.
On paper, all of this makes eminent sense. Though social media played a big role in 2014 Lok Sabha elections, access to the internet has exploded over the past three years, and the influence it has had on society has been commensurate. Any attempt to regulate public information at election time, as the Commission is expected to do, while ignoring the impact of social media would be meaningless.
Yet actually implementing any of these represents a steep, if not insurmountable challenge. With all other forms of mass communication – newspapers, radio, television – it is far easier for the Election Commission to monitor the way parties are using them, track who is responsible for a violation and mete out punishments. Despite this, the Commission is often fighting a losing battle even when it comes to traditional media.
Online, where keeping track of all political speech and being able to trace it back to the source seems inordinately difficult, the task will be exponentially harder. This is compounded by the fact that the ruling dispensation appears to have little interest in keeping a check on misuse of social media to spread hate speech and fake news. Other parties, some guilty of the same, have little reason to help out either.
Without the government to set the tone, expectations will fall heavily on the Election Commission to take action. Prudently, it has tried to include the intermediaries like Facebook and Google in the process. Though the companies do not have a stellar record at recognising the potential harm their platforms can do to democracy, they have hopefully learnt from the experience of the last few years.
But beyond the Election Commission and the social media companies, it will also fall on the other stakeholders – the media, the bureaucracy and ordinary voters – to be extra vigilant about the potential misuse of the digital sphere. Hundreds of millions of people having access to instant communication is a situation that is truly unprecedented, and it will be impossible to predict how things will actually turn out. This puts the onus on all of us to pay close attention to how this new, empowering but also dangerous technology impacts our democratic republic, so we can at least identify concerns even if we may not yet have solutions.
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