Social media platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) have presented a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019 to the Election Commission of India.

Participants including BIGO, ByteDance, Facebook, Google, Sharechat and Twitter have agreed to take action on the content reported by the nodal officer,expeditiously, in accordance with the law.

Risk from social media in Elections

  • Fake News: ​Fake news affects voting behaviour in a big way and right now,the only mechanism is Section 126 and EC instructions on paid news. We have to bring in a robust mechanism for conduct on social media platforms.Fake news is a type of yellow journalism that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via the traditional print, broadcasting news media, or via Internet-based social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalist, exaggerated, or patently false headlines that grab attention.
  • Political parties in India and the EC are also becoming increasingly reliant on digital telecommunication. Previous attempts to rig elections included kidnappings, assassinations and booth capturing. Technology makes it cleaner and easier now.
  • ​Threats of foreign interference : ​Nothing prevents China or Pakistan from trying to hack Indian elections.

Commitments in the code

  • The code aims to identify measures that the platforms can take to increase confidence in the electoral process to safeguard against misuse that vitiates the free and fair character.
  • The Social media platforms will deploy appropriate policies and processes to facilitate access to information on electoral matters where appropriate and keeping in mind the principle of freedom of expression.
  • The platforms have voluntarily undertaken to establish a high-priority communication channel with the nodal officers designated by the ECI.
  • The Election commission together with platforms has developed a notification mechanism by which the electoral body can notify them of potential violations under Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act and on other matters.
  • As per the code, the platforms will acknowledge these notifications within three hours of receipt and will act upon expeditiously based on the nature of the reported violation.
  • Platforms will ensure that political advertisements by parties or their candidates are pre-certified.

Role of Social Media in Elections

In India, the number of users for most social media platforms is within the top ten in the world.For instance, WhatsApp has 200 million users in India, Twitter has 7.65 million users, Facebook has 300 million users, and 41 million people watch YouTube on a monthly basis. The impact of such intensive communication through social media has been decisive for the very nature and character of electoral contests.

Politicians promote their controlled speech and present their point of view without being interrupted by journalists or by media format limitation.

  • Social media has given privilege for politicians to post a presumptive political agenda.
  • By means of social media, political parties or politicians can mobilize public and invites them to participate in discussion on some issues of public interest.
  • By using the social media tools, politicians and political parties interacts apparently with more efficiently with their supporters, beyond institutional and bureaucratic rigors.

Social media technologies can be at once democratising and alienating. These technologies enable any individual to reach a vast audience (which was until recently the preserve of more organised media houses), but simultaneously this makes it far easier for them to be captured by a limited number of actors. A relatively small financial cost lends the ability to a small number of users to bombard the electorate with party political messages with little political accountability or responsibility.

The net impact is in geometric proportion to the number of such platforms deployed.

It is fair to argue that the impact of this social media use cannot be overstated and has reportedly led to social relations being fractured because of political views being circulated on such platforms.

Way Forward

  • Independent, trusted and effective press regulation.
  • Mainstream media must use social media tools intensively in order to defend the truth, present the correct information and balance opinions.
  • Curb media ownership. We need an open debate on the impact of media concentration on our democracy and wider culture. There should be clear limits on media ownership so that powerful proprietors with vested interests are not allowed to dominate the news agenda.
  • Define fake news legally. Heavy punitive measures for whosoever violates the said definition.
  • There should be grievance redressal mechanisms and arbitration spaces to resolve issues.
  • Digital media literacy among people to increase scrutiny and feedbacks of the content.
  • Technical solutions that assess the credibility of information circulating online are also needed.
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