Three weeks ahead of India’s most digitally-influenced Lok Sabha election so far, the Election Commission will meet with representatives of Internet companies Tuesday to discuss unresolved issues related to social media content at a time when the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is in force.
How did we get here?
In January this year, a 14-member EC committee chaired by Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha suggested changes to Section 126 of The Representation of the People (RP) Act, which prohibits campaigning in the last two days before voting. The panel studied the impact of social and new media during this “silence period” and recommended appropriate changes to the MCC. New media and social media are currently not covered under Section 126.
Two weeks ago, the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) — which is representing Facebook, Twitter, Google, WhatsApp and ShareChat in working with the poll panel to draw up a ‘Code of Ethics’ — agreed to “priority channels for the ECI within their grievance redressal mechanisms” and other election-related educational programs on these platforms.
On March 9, the EC said parties and candidates can’t use photos of defence personnel and defence functions for election purposes. Subsequently, Facebook was asked to remove political posters bearing Wg Cdr Abhinandan’s pictures, shared by BJP leaders.
On Friday, the EC wrote to Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat, and TikTok calling them for a meeting on Tuesday to discuss channels of grievance redressal, evolve a mechanism to prevent abuse on social media and a “notification mechanism” for the EC to flag violations, and work out awareness programs particularly during the silence period and a “general Code of Ethics by Social Media intermediaries”.
What is likely to be discussed?
Based on the Sinha recommendations and IAMAI’s response, the following unresolved issues are likely to be put on the table:
* Process of pre-certification for political advertisements online: The EC has said that all political advertisements on social media will require pre-certification from its Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMCs). The IAMAI disagrees: “The onus of pre-certification is on advertisers and not on intermediaries.” The industry body has quoted a 2004 Supreme Court ruling that said parties and candidates must apply to the EC before issuing TV ads. “Pre-monitoring”, the intermediaries say, would require them to forego legal safe-harbour provisions, which exempt them from liability for content on their platforms before it is brought to their attention.
* Time for companies to remove content in the silence period: In its report, the Commission said that companies must remove content in the 48-hour silence period within three hours of notice. IAMAI did not explicitly respond to this stipulation. IAMAI president Subho Ray said it could either agree to abide by the request “as soon as possible” or explain in a “time-bound manner” why the content could not be taken down.
* Who is a political advertiser? A third unresolved issue mentioned in IAMAI’s response to the EC is whether a expression “political advertiser” also includes those who pay platforms to “boost” or “promote” a post created by somebody else. “…There is… concern regarding individual posts of endorsement that may not qualify as ‘paid political advertisement’ in the most commonly understood form of the term. The ECI [has]… referred to issuing an FAQ on the norms for ‘paid political advertisement’. The platforms request the ECI to expedite this FAQ,” IAMAI said in its response.
India-based social media platform ShareChat sought further clarification from the EC over “what constitutes a political advertisement…; which entities are bound by the obligations to ensure pre-certification, and time frame from when such obligations apply on candidates, parties, and (if relevant) third parties”.
* Citing specific legal provisions: After EC’s first takedown notice to Facebook last week, the company informally pointed out to the EC that it had not cited the specific legal provision that the content had violated. IAMAI’s Ray told The Indian Express: “We want a legal order that cites a legal provision. One, it will help us establish the legality of the notice. And two, in case we challenge it, we will have to explain to the court that this notice does not pass the muster of the cited act or law.” In its response to the EC’s proposed guidelines, IAMAI said: “The platforms would also like to engage with the office of the ECI to train the designated officer on how to reach out to the platforms, and also conduct mock ‘fire drills’ to fine tune the process.”
Why does social media matter so much in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
The Election Commission began conversations about social media in 2013, but the scale and reach of public engagement on Internet-based platforms has increased enormously since then. According to IAMAI, the Internet base has more than doubled to almost half a billion users since the time of the last elections.
Political parties have made a significant advertisement push online. According to Facebook’s advertisement portal, Indians spent almost Rs 10 crore between February 24 and March 9 this year on political ads on the platform. Both the BJP and Congress have expanded their social media volunteers and office-bearer groups massively. Digital marketers, such as the Congress’s Silverpush, have entered the picture.
Most significantly, Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica controversy made election integrity and social media a topic of discussion in India. Cambridge Analytica’s Indian partner Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) named the BJP, Congress, and JD(U) as clients on its website, but all the parties denied working with the data firm.
Since then, social media executives have been called into European and American government hearings, and Indian government institutions too, have joined in the questioning of these companies. Twitter came under fire earlier this year for alleged anti-right-wing bias.