Not just undisclosed WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Instagram pages and Twitter accounts used for political campaigning and messaging, social media posts that can breach peace can also spell trouble for candidates and administrators of these accounts, especially in Shahpur. In a first, Shahpur Police has sent a notice to WhatsApp group administrators or ‘admins’ in the region to dissuade group members from making any political comment or criticism, which may trigger altercations. Similar notices were sent by Kalyan and Pune police earlier this month.
The notice, issued on October 7, reads: “If any complaints is raised regarding criticism of any party or candidate on any WhatsApp group and a law and order situation is created, then the administration of that group will be held responsible, and action will be taken against the administrator.”
The notices were issued under Section 149 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) and Section 68 of the Maharashtra Police Act, police said.
The state Election Commission of India (ECI), however, has noted that they cannot stop citizens from posting or sharing their opinion on any social media groups. Deputy Chief Electoral Officer Shirish Mohod told The Sunday Express, “If a citizen is sharing his or her opinion about the election, party or candidate, we cannot stop them, it is their democratic right. However, if someone is using the platform to spread communal or religious hatred or a law and order situation is created, then action will be taken. In addition, if a WhatsApp group is used by a candidate or his affiliates for political messaging, but has not disclosed it to state ECI, notices will be sent to them as well.”
All the candidates in the fray are required to include use of social media for campaigning in their campaign expenditure, including the money spent on social media advertising.
Earlier this week, the state ECI had issued notices to four candidates from Mumbai – MNS’s Sandeep Deshpande (Mahim), Congress’s Varsha Gaikwad (Dharavi), Shiv Sena’s Sada Sarvankar (Mahim) and Sena’s Yamini Jadhav (Byculla) – for setting up sponsored Facebook pages without permission.
In January, a petition filed by Sagar Suryavanshi, a Pune-based lawyer, had sought directions to the ECI to restrain any form of advertisement, videos or messages 48 hours before an election. The petition also demanded regulation of social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, during the no-campaign (silent) period before voting commences. The ECI had noted that it is difficult to monitor WhatsApp group, unless someone files a complaint.
In March,the Bombay High Court had accepted the statement made by the ECI on voluntary code of ethics for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The statement said that platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google, have committed to process any violations reported within three hours. The platforms have also agreed to create a high-priority, dedicated reporting mechanism for the ECI and appoint dedicated teams during the period of general elections for taking expeditious action on any reported violations.
Joint Chief Election Officer Anil Valvi said, “We act on complaints made by citizens. We are scanning Facebook pages, Twitter posts and Instagram, but for WhatsApp groups we depend on the complaints made by citizens.”