EC binds social media platforms to report and take down abuse

In a bid to curb abuse of social media during general elections, the Election Commission of India has fixed the onus of reporting and remedial action on the social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, ShareChat.

The platforms will also be required to display the expenditure information of an political advertisement so that amount spent could be accrued to election expenditure made by the candidate. Under the rules election expenditure for a candidate has been capped at INR 1million while for parties there is no such limit.

The platforms will also create a "high priority" dedicated reporting mechanism to assist the Election Commission and appoint dedicated teams during the General Elections 2019 for taking "expeditious action on any reported violations."

In a series of meeting between the social media majors, Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and the EC that concluded last Wednesday, the participants have also agreed to provide a mechanism for political advertisers to submit pre-certified advertisements issued by Media Certification and Monitoring Committee.

“The Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019" submitted by the social media giants to EC also promises to facilitate transparency in paid political advertisements. IAMAI has agreed to coordinate with participants various steps mentioned in this code. Participants have also committed to voluntarily undertake voter awareness campaigns.

The self regulation has been encouraged to ensure free, fair and  ethical usage of social media platforms to maintain the integrity of the electoral process for the General Elections 2019, according to EC.

The Code voluntarily agreed upon by the Participants comes into operation with immediate effect.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora while appreciating the steps taken, said that formulation of the code augurs a good beginning but is essentially, a work in making.

He said the participants need to follow in letter and spirit the commitments made in the code of ethics. The platforms have committed to process any violations reported under Section 126 of Representation of People Act, 1951 within three hours as per Sinha Committee recommendations.  

Section 126 prohibits display of any election matter by means of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency.

In view of increasing role of social media in during the elections, the EC had on 10 January 2018 constituted a committee under the chairmanship of Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha to review and suggest modifications and changes in the existing laws.

"The task of maintaining campaign silence during last 48 hours before the conclusion of polling is becoming increasingly onerous in the light of the increasing influence of digital media," the EC noted, seeking proactive participation from the social media and the stakeholders to contain the possible damaging impact.

The committee was tasked to examine the type, category or growth of communication technology or media platform in the country and difficulties in regulating these media platforms during multiphase election when prohibitory period of 48 hours are in force.

It was also asked to study the impact of new media platforms and social media during the prohibitory period of 48 hours before the close of poll and its implication in view of the provisions of section 126.

Move comes after a barrage of complaints received by the government and the EC of unbridled misuse, abuse and spread of misinformation at Social Media platforms by the candidates, parties, unidentified users, and even by the staffers of social media platforms themselves.

Instead of taking action on the abuse, staffers of certain Social Media platform were themselves found indulging in political lobbying, using intemperate language, intimidating, and blocking everyday users of certain political or religious persuasions.

Observers says the steps by EC were welcome, though belated, as in 2014 elections there were huge spends by candidates of certain political party on the social media platforms but were not held accountable.

The experts also apprehend that the present framework may not be able to curb the sponsored narratives from the external forces especially in the light of humiliating surgical strikes in Pakistan or Doklam standoff with China

"The interference in the political process is bound to happen in clandestine manner by Pakistan or China, especially after recent confrontations," Jiten Jain, cyber security expert from Voyager Infortec told a TV channel.

In a democracy peopled with 1.3 billion plus, as many as 898,768,978 (467,004,861 men and  431,732,825 women) are eligible voters who are set to cast their ballot in the planet's biggest democratic exercise with candidates contesting 543 seats to Lok Sabha in seven phase poll starting 11 April till 19 May stretched across 29 states and 7 Union Territories. This includes 16,77,386 service electors, 71735 overseas electors and 31,292 third genders. Results will be out on 23 May.