Fake news as a challenge before the Election Commission
Nasim Zaidi: As far as I understand from my interactions, the Election Commission has not really come across many instances of so-called fake news. There were some instances last year, in the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections. This year, there were not many instances in the Northeast elections. But during elections in Karnataka, keeping in view the emerging challenge of fake news, Facebook itself did two things. They allowed people to assess whether a particular news item is fake news or not. After getting the assessment, Facebook subjected the so-called fake news to fact-checkers. Thereafter, depending upon the confirmation, they started removing the virality of fake news. And if they found that the fake news was very severe, they would delete that.
Whether the Election Commission is equipped to handle fake news
Frankly speaking, the Election Commission would not have the wherewithal to deal with the challenge of fake news. The Election Commission will have to partner with all stakeholders. Social media platforms have to fulfil their responsibilities. I believe the Election Commission is going to engage with these social media platforms and, in fact, I understand that many social media platforms are themselves coming out with certain guidelines in respect of fake news.
If partnering with social media is a good idea
When I say partnering, it does not mean we are partnering in their revenue model. There is no harm in the Election Commission talking to them formally, and coming up with guidelines which should then be adhered to by the social media platforms themselves. They have the wherewithal, they can find out the sources, whether a particular post is true news or not… Without partnership with social media platforms, it will be very difficult to mitigate the impact. At the same time, the Election Commission will also have to partner with civil society. One of the important elements of fair elections is that a voter should be allowed to express his or her choice without external influence. There are two dangers. One is that social media, by allowing the flow of fake news, can impact the choice of people. Second, as we have heard in the context of Cambridge Analytica, is the misuse of data for profiling, micro-targeting etc. These have to be dealt with by the Election Commission.
The challenges of an election in the current times
One of the important challenges is logistics — operations, magnitude, size of election, planning. In this respect, the Election Commission is well-oiled. The second important challenge is of a free election… There are pockets of the country where voters are intimidated, threatened.
The most important part is fairness. That is where fake news, abuse of money, influencing of voters are involved. Unfortunately, in dealing with bribery, the law is weak — if we catch a voter who has been bribed, the bribe giver cannot be arrested. So a law needs to come to make bribery a cognisable offence.
The most important thing that the Election Commission will have to deal with is EVMs and VVPAT because of their background, and because the confidence of voters has to be ensured. Also, depending on the political temperature, enforcement of the Model Code will be a very big challenge.
How the Election Commission can intervene for dealing with fake news
I would suggest that the Election Commission must engage with various stakeholders and formulate guidelines. Social media will have to play a bigger role under given guidelines. I would urge social media to get into self-regulation… The Election Commission will have to work with political parties and candidates because it can regulate them; it cannot regulate social media directly in the absence of a law. The time has come when the problem of social media and its misuse by parties and candidates and their well-wishers must find a place in our Model Code of Conduct as a separate chapter.