Election officials on their toes as they scan candidates for social media misuse

Further, in the absence of a defined regulatory framework, the content also falls in grey areas, with potshots going viral.

Written by Ruhi Bhasin | Mumbai | Updated: October 13, 2014 5:16:13 am

In the office of the returning officer of the Vile Parle constituency, inside a community centre at New Airport Colony, the video content of BJP candidate Parag Alavani is being scanned, as per protocols under the model code of conduct. The promotional video will be uploaded on Alavani’s social media sites, showcasing the work done by him as a BJP leader in Vile Parle.

With social media now acknowledged as a propaganda platform, the Election Commission (EC) has asked for all Facebook pages and Twitter handles being used by contesting candidates. Officials, however, are increasingly finding that regulating social media campaigns of candidates is not only a time-consuming task but also a complex one, given that the rules are still not very clear.

What’s more, with social media users arguably more well-versed in how to maximise shares and likes which are monitoring campaign contents going online, are barely making a dent.

“At present, all advertisements that candidates and parties put up on social media sites like Facebook or Twitter are pre-certified by the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (of the Election Commission). There are still some undefined areas as far as social media monitoring is concerned, in terms of whether it can be seen as invasion of privacy,’’ said Neelesh R Gatne, deputy secretary and joint chief electoral officer.

Monitoring social media, which is still at a nascent stage, with no rules or policies framed, began in October last year before Delhi and four other states went to polls. “The Commission’s attention was drawn to the use of social media for election campaigning and also certain violations of the electoral law in the social media, which needs to be regulated in the interest of transparency and level playing field in the elections,” the Election Commission had said in October 2013, in its compendium of instructions on paid news and related matters.

And while the traditional mediums continue to be used, parties have found that the new medium have a much wider reach, with data being updated on real time, from various locations. Further, in the absence of a defined regulatory framework, the content also falls in grey areas, with potshots going viral.

Returning Officer Shyam Golap, Vile Parle constituency, speaks of meetings that the EC has conducted across the city with every candidate. “This process is continuously being improved upon since the Lok Sabha elections. We basically act on complaints as it is not possible to go through every candidate’s Facebook, Twitter or other accounts,’’ says Golap. The parties have had to submit their details in the affidavit too, a first for MLAs, after the EC introduced this requirement in the last Lok Sabha elections. The novelty is still to sink in, even in the monitoring stage.

At the Bandra office, for instance, the situation is challenging with returning officer Navnath Zare pointing to the severe staff crunch and inability to access every comment, feed or tweet posted. He has six men to track the hourly updates, most of which are retweets by party candidates. The same staff members also have to scan through other mediums before they reach the online space, including television, radio and newspapers. According to the EC officials, the vigilantism comes from rival parties. “Candidates tend to divulge information about their opponents in terms of social media violations, if any,” explained Vilas Naik, returning officer, Andheri (East).

A LOCAL FLAVOUR

When Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chose to react to BJP’s advertising campaign, asking where is Maharashtra, a bunch of visuals were released online, showing the state’s map strategically placed as a heart in a long portrait of MNS chief Raj Thackeray.

With the image being retweeted, the retort has been kept alive in social media. While social media was always a favorite for national parties, a local flavour seems to have seeped into the overall social media campaigning, with most parties choosing the medium for better reach. Experts say that this reality has struck local parties, with Shiv Sena, MNS, and even independent candidates now opting for a Twitter handle to spread their words. In Sena Bhawan, known to be the party’s headquarters, a separate room with restricted access is where six people are hard at work, busy scanning and uploading fresh material on social media. As Sena chief Uddhav

Thackeray addresses rallies across Maharashtra, the job of the party’s media and communication cell is to spread the message across, using WhatsApp and Facebook. Such platforms, unlike traditional approaches, also allow easy access to the minds of the young voter.

“We have 62 WhatsApp groups comprising 50 people and they have their own groups,” says Shiv Sena’s social media in-charge, Harshal Pradhan.

“Aditya Thackeray’s clips, which are uploaded on Facebook  becomes like a mini rally as he has 78,000 followers,’’ he said. “We have launched a mobile application as it is the most convenient way to reach out to a large number of people.  Through this, people can access NCP president Sharad Pawar’s blogs,” said NCP social media coordinator Ravikant Sambhaji Varpe.

ruhi.bhasin@expressindia.com

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