It takes five million workers to pull off India’s election. Shreya Roy Chowdhury and Mridula Chari bring you their stories in a series called The Silent Army.
The first thing Shriram Raut did when assigned to election duty in Maharashtra’s Solapur constituency was to research political campaigning in the United States.
It was not that far a leap. Raut is an assistant professor at Solapur University’s computer science department. On March 9, he was deputed to Solapur’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee as its nodal officer for social media. But, as he soon found, the Election Commission of India’s guidelines for monitoring social media were limited.
“I wanted to study how we could effectively monitor spending on social media,” said Raut, who has now created a dossier on how to monitor social media expenditure. “For this, I realised I would have to look at how other countries had done it.”
If 2014 was the first Lok Sabha election where social media campaigning made its mark, 2019 is even more fraught, with a significant chunk of campaigning taking place on social media networks and messaging apps such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. However, given the opaque nature of these mediums, tracking them is not easy.
The Election Commission’s first guidelines on social media were issued on October 25, 2013. In April 2014, it said that political content in the form of messages, comments or photos “will not be treated as political advertisement and therefore would not require pre-certification”. A year later, it asked for committees to monitor bulk SMSes.
In March, the Election Commission met representatives of social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat and TikTok to discuss how to maintain the model code of conduct during elections. The next day, the platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India presented a voluntary code of ethics to the Election Commission. This came into effect on March 20.
The guidelines, which the Election Commission described in a press release as a good beginning but “essentially, a work in making”, is limited and details only what the platforms will do to aid monitoring.
Instructions with the Media Certification and Monitoring Committees, however, are more limited. Candidates and parties are required to register their official social media accounts while filing their nominations. These accounts are what Media Certification and Monitoring Committees are officially supposed to monitor.
“It is true that our policy is also evolving – this is the first time we are doing this,” said a nodal officer from South District, Delhi. “For us, it is like any other media. We are monitoring Twitter and Facebook but have not been able to monitor WhatsApp – we are trying to figure out how.”
Solapur voted on April 18, while all seven constituencies in Delhi will vote on May 12.
Each constituency has a Media Certification and Monitoring Committee, which tracks the activities of candidates and parties in their areas. These committees have an outside expert for social media, such as Solapur’s Shriram Raut.
There are also nodal officers for social media who liaise between political parties, platforms and the Election Commission. These were appointed after the Election Commission’s meeting with the social media companies, with some states still in the process of appointing them.
Solapur’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee was formed on February 4 with six members. When it received instructions from the Election Commission to appoint a social media expert, Ravindra Raut, head of the committee, asked at Solapur University. He was referred to Shriram Raut, who joined on March 9.
Delhi appointed a nodal officer for social media only on March 24. Until then, complaints relating to social media posts were examined by the nodal officer for the model code of conduct and his team. Till March 28, most complaints were related to “things that were tweeted or retweeted”, said an official from the office of Delhi’s Chief Electoral Officer.
“Some were not specific to Delhi, such as one on the use of the defence forces, have been forwarded to the central commission,” the official said. “We look at localised issues. A party’s candidate from Delhi had posted an image of a cow at some door and commented that was the BJP’s door-to-door campaign. We have sent it to the concerned District Election Officer and the nodal officer for action.” This took place before nominations were filed in Delhi but the officer explained that the candidate’s name had already been announced by the party.
“We check if the tweet or post affects the election in our parliamentary constituency, if our parties are involved, or if anything is happening that can sway the vote,” said a nodal officer from South District, Delhi. “Outside [of that], we won’t be able to do anything beyond forwarding the complaint to the relevant body.”
In Delhi, complaints related to social media posts that are registered through the Election Commission’s cVIGIL app generally get escalated to the office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Delhi or to the Central Commission.
For example, one complaint that was transferred from Chandigarh to Delhi was against a blog post containing the prime minister’s photograph and some text seeking votes and asking people to join the BJP.
“It came to Delhi because the BJP office is on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg but it is a pan-India issue,” said an official from the office of Delhi Chief Electoral Officer. “How do you prove that the post originated from that office. There are multiple authorities involved as well.”
Another complaint registered in Delhi was against Narendra Modi’s image being used on the Twitter profile for the Prime Minister’s Office. Incidentally, it continues to be there.
“Most complaints are from Twitter where we look for star politicians and campaigners,” the Delhi official said. Till late March, they had “not seen much” on WhatsApp.
Ravindra Raut, head of Solapur’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee and a District Information Officer when not on election duty, said that the Election Commission has asked Facebook to close several accounts, while WhatApp has also released advertisements to educate people.
“We are not a censor board,” he said. “Our task is only to facilitate candidates in maintaining the code of conduct. [In this context] social media is still difficult to monitor.”
In the absence of clarity, Solapur’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee fell back on their own research. When he joined the team, Shriram Raut, with Ravindra Raut’s support, looked up how to track political spending on social media.
Facebook’s ad archive (now updated to the ad library) and Twitter’s Ad Transparency Centre were both launched in 2018 after widespread criticism of the role advertisements on social media played in the US and UK.
If the team finds an instance of unauthorised spending on social media, it can pass this information ahead to the expenses monitoring committee, which nominally monitors candidate expenses to ensure it remains within the limit of Rs 70 lakh.
To the Solapur’s team’s regret, they have not yet caught a single unauthorised expense.
“The candidates here do not use much social media,” said Sujit Bansode, another member of the monitoring committee, who works as a transmission officer at All India Radio.
The BJP candidate, Jai Siddheshwar Mahaswami, was conducting a door-to-door campaign and relying on the party at the state level for his advertisements, he said. Former Union Minister Sushilkumar Shinde of the Congress also had a relatively low media profile, he said.
The only candidate who had a large social media presence, particularly on Facebook, was the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi’s Prakash Ambedkar. “But his social media campaign is conducted entirely by volunteers,” said Bansode. “As it is not an expense, we were not concerned with that.”
According to Bansode, because parties had switched to social media, other forms of campaigning had reduced. Political parties confirmed this.
“The old type of election has gone,” said Kishor Deshpande, campaign manager for the BJP in Solapur. Earlier, they would place ads in newspapers, he said, but now run campaigns on mobile phones. They used to be able to paint slogans on walls, but now cannot put up flex banners because the Election Commission has become “rigid” about this. “But I also run 80 WhatsApp groups,” Deshpande said. “The ECI [Election Commission of India] cannot control that.”
In one instance, the BJP is reported to have hired an outside firm to handle its publicity.
Puppet social media accounts of multiple political parties continue to be almost impossible to track.
“Whatever should have been done to monitor social media should have been done earlier,” Bansode said. “Rs 70 lakh is a restriction only for the election period. What about expenses in the last five years? By the time the model code of conduct is enforced, people have already decided whom to vote for.”
For now, the Election Commission is just trying to monitor social media and WhatsApp groups.
In Gautam Buddh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, the District Magistrate has a separate “war room” with three people to monitor conversations in around 350 WhatsApp groups between them, said Rajesh Chauhan, the District Information Officer there.
Police officials also contribute to monitoring WhatsApp groups.
“We are forwarding messages dispelling hoaxes and giving information about the elections in our WhatsApp groups,” said Atul Zhende, additional deputy Superintendent of Police of Solapur district. The police have a presence in around 350 groups, he said.
Babu Bangar, Deputy Commissioner of Police of Solapur, added that the police also had a special cyber cell to monitor social media. “We have hidden members in WhatsApp groups,” he said. “If we find any information with the potential to disrupt law and order, we attempt to curb or delete it.”
Nodal officers across constituencies concurred that what was most needed was a publicity campaign to raise awareness amongst citizens and to encourage them to report violations.
“There should have been training for officers before the model code of conduct came into place,” said Ankush Chavan, another member of Solapur’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee who normally works as a field officer for the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Publicity in Maharashtra’s Solapur, Latur, Osmanabad and Satara districts. “But at least one deterrent is that the public themselves help to monitor candidates on social media.”
He referred to a speech Narendra Modi had made while campaigning in Latur where he asked first-time voters to dedicate their votes to the soldiers who carried out the Balakot air strikes and to those who died in the Pulwama terror attack. “People began to complain about that statement as soon as it was made,” Chavan said. “When a candidate in Solapur said that he was god, he also got trolled immediately.”
Chavan added: “If our committee was not there, candidates might do much worse. Without the permissions we give, people’s phones would be jammed with campaign messages, just like ‘good morning’ messages.”
Read more in the series: