With India in the middle of the Lok Sabha elections, there has been a marked rise in the quantum of political propaganda and fake news appearing in Indian cyberspace.

Ordinary social media users encounter this digital propaganda on a daily basis in a variety of different ways – ranging from run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories about India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru to more vitriolic and communally inflammatory content.

While much of this propaganda has now become commonplace on social media, political parties play a particularly active role in circulating such content during an election campaign.

In an era when electoral campaigning has fully permeated cyberspace, how far can India’s political parties be made stakeholders in the attempt to regulate fake news and other pernicious propaganda found on the internet? What sort of regulatory mechanisms might be needed to hold political parties accountable?

To answer such questions, we first need to understand what sort of actors run this digital propaganda machinery behind the scenes, and how this campaign machinery’s modus operandi provides loopholes through which political parties shirk accountability and escape the radar of existing regulations.

Social media and elections

The prominent role played by social media in India’s election campaigns first came to the fore in the 2014 general election, which was widely called “India’s first social media election”. While the Bharatiya Janata Party enjoyed a first-mover advantage on this front that year, other parties – such as the Indian National Congress under Divya Spandana, its social media chairperson – ­have managed to catch up since then.

Throughout India, national and regional parties of all hues are now armed with swanky IT cells and well-oiled social media teams that serve as the coordinating point for their party’s digital propaganda.

Recognising the significance of social media as a tool for electoral campaigning, in October 2013, the Election Commission of India mandated that all candidates contesting an election need to include the expenditure incurred by them on social media outreach as part of their statutory disclosure of overall campaign expenditure.

For the 2019 general election, it has been estimated that Rs 12,000 crore will be spent on political advertisements on social media alone. However, other than the Election Commission’s regulations on campaign expenditure, little consideration has been paid to how political parties can be made more accountable for how they use cyberspace as a tool for the dissemination of their propaganda.

In March, the Internet and Mobile Association of India and representatives from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Google came together to adopt a set of “voluntary code of ethics” for the purpose of regulating the misuse of social media during the 2019 General Election.

While the Election Commission has set up committees to pre-screen political ads on social media for the ongoing elections, the efficacy of this exercise remains to be seen. Given the sheer size and dispersed nature of the platform, political advertisements found on the internet cannot be monitored with the same precision as those found on TV, newspapers, or radio.

Challenges in monitoring content

However, in addition to technical difficulties in monitoring digital content, policy makers need to consider two other challenges that complicate the extent to which political propaganda on digital media can be monitored and regulated.

First, a political party’s official social media and IT teams only represent a fraction of the organisational machinery through which political propaganda flows and circulates throughout the country.

For instance, the BJP, which has the most widespread digital presence among all parties in India, employs no more than 30 full-time staff in its national level IT-cell. Supplementing this handful of professionals on the party’s official payroll are hundreds of thousands of part-time unpaid volunteers who disseminate the party’s propaganda through personal social media profiles and WhatsApp groups.

Using an army of unpaid volunteers is not only a cost-effective strategy for political parties; it also provides the party a useful loophole to shirk accountability. Since much of the association between a party and its social media volunteers is ad hoc and temporary, a party can simply disavow responsibility of being associated with a volunteer who has been found spreading ethically dubious propaganda.

These decentralised and amorphous structures through which propaganda flows means that it becomes difficult to monitor what role a party has played in spreading it, and it becomes nearly impossible to pin down a person (or group) who should be held accountable in the event of a serious violation.

Second, while a political party’s in-house social media team and volunteers shoulder considerable responsibility in maintaining the party’s presence on cyberspace, a large part of these activities also get outsourced to external agents whose services are hired by the party on a contractual basis. These services are often provided by political consultants, “spin-doctors”, and advertising firms.

In the last decade, the role of political consulting firms has become particularly significant in Indian elections. Many of these firms provide bespoke services, ranging from constituency-level data analytics to running digital war rooms.

However, unlike their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, political consultants in India are currently not governed by any legal provisions or industry-wide professional guidelines that can monitor their behaviour. As a result, their association with political parties often operates through informal negotiations, and is fuelled by illicit financing and underhand deals.

In the absence of any transparency about how political parties hire the services of external agents, for what purpose, and through what models of financial compensation, it becomes difficult to determine where the buck should stop. Furthermore, placing stringent regulations on a political party’s digital media use will likely lead to even more activities being outsourced from in-house party-staffers to external consultants through informal channels, thereby rendering the statutory regulations redundant.

Big picture solutions

Thus, while the need for laws that can help curb the problem of fake news and hate speech on the internet remains pertinent as ever in India, a top-down imposition of statutory regulations or a checklist of dos and don’ts for political parties is unlikely to be a plausible solution on its own.

The costs of regulation are too high, the political will for enforcement is too low, and the possibility of loopholes too many. Instead, regulations placed on how political parties use digital media need to be seen as part of a wider gamut of other urgent reforms and regulations – such as those pertaining to political financing and creating a legal framework for political consulting firms.

The letter of the law must grapple with the complex reality of the change that political parties and election campaigns are undergoing in the 21st century.

Amogh Dhar Sharma is a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.

This is the second part of a series on tackling online extreme speech.

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