ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Monitoring Digital Election Campaigns

The ECIs approach to campaigning on social media has failed to ensure a level playing field.

 

The campaigning for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections has been perhaps the most “digital” so far with parties across the spectrum now using, and often abusing, the digital tools available to them such as social media, mobile apps, online discussion forums, and mass messaging.

Last week, social media platforms came together with the Internet and Mobile Association of India to release a “Voluntary Code of Ethics” in consultation with the Election Commission of India (ECI). Through this, Facebook, Google, Twitter and others will monitor and take action against election-related paid advertisements that violate the ECI guidelines. This code claims to ensure that there is no misuse of the platforms that can “vitiate the free and fair character” of the electoral process.

Over the last decade, social media has developed from being a networking tool to becoming an important mode for citizen engagement that can empower, educate, and emancipate, changing the way in which democracies operate. However, as was evident from the Cambridge Analytica revelations, the personal data of millions of people was harvested using these very same tools for political gains. Closer home, along with threats of data harvesting, fake news is rampant and content websites are masquerading as “news outlets.” These instances reveal that while social media platforms can be empowering, they are still unequal forums with differential access determined by money and power.

At an all-party meeting called by the ECI in August 2018, there was discussion on instituting a cap on election-related expenses by political parties in order to bring parity in spending by national and regional parties and limit how money can impact election outcomes. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the only party at this meeting that opposed this move. More recently, news reports suggest that the BJP’s social media spending on Facebook, along with spends by pro-BJP Facebook pages such as “Bharat ke Man ki Baat” and “Nation with NaMo” among others, has surpassed other parties’ spending by a large margin. The BJP and its affiliated pages reportedly spent ₹ 2.37 crore in February 2019, accounting for more than 50% of the total spends in that month. During the same period, regional parties clubbed together spent ₹ 19.8 lakh, and the Congress and its affiliated pages spent ₹ 10.6 lakh. Much of social media spending takes place through influencer marketing, where prominent individuals who are aligned with political parties run long and expensive campaigns. A majority of such campaigns are run on cash payments and it is difficult to establish a money trail. It is also almost impossible to track individuals posting advertisements on behalf of political parties. Platforms such as WhatsApp, which offer encrypted messaging, are also used to promote political advertisements, further complicating the process of monitoring.

In this context, it is necessary to question the role of the ECI. While the ECI has recognised the use of social media in election campaigning as early as October 2013—before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections—in its “Instructions of the Commission with respect to use of Social Media in Election Campaigning,” it had only aimed these instructions at “candidates, political parties, media and election observers.” We have come a full circle, with several state assembly elections having been held since then, and there seems to have been no updation of these instructions. There have been no further guidelines on how social media platforms need to be used by candidates, parties, and others, nor has a cap been put on the inordinate sums of money being used by parties to advertise on these platforms.

The recently released voluntary code of ethics is a case of too little, too late, and is only a guide on how social media companies and the ECI are to interact in monitoring paid advertisements during electoral campaigning. Being platforms that carry advertisements, these social media companies should essentially be bound by the model code of conduct with respect to paid advertisements from candidates, political parties, and their supporters. The 2013 instructions from the ECI had already directed that advertisements on social media require pre-certification and transparency on payments made for the same. That steps to comply with these instructions are being taken only now, and that too on a voluntary basis, shows the ECI’s lethargic and outdated approach towards digital platforms and their role in electoral processes. As a result, the ECI has failed to ensure a level playing field in the electoral process, online and offline.

The digital sphere is not separate from physical, social and political spheres, and to view it as operating in isolation is rather unwise. We are in a grey zone now because we have ignored the need to interrogate how digital platforms and technologies affect democratic systems, and in turn the integrity of electoral processes. Setting up a “voluntary” code of ethics one month before the world’s largest elections are to begin is nothing more than a futile public relations exercise by the social media platforms. Ideally, the ECI should have been creating an adequate and nuanced knowledge base on social media in the last few years, which would have enabled it to navigate the fast-evolving digital landscape. If it wants to catch up with what social media and elections might look like in 2024, the time for the ECI to take action is now.

Updated On : 2nd Apr, 2019

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