As parties raise the campaign pitch on social media platforms, the State Election Commission (SEC) is working to ensure a level-playing field in the online space, tracking undisclosed sponsored pages, hate speeches, campaign and political advertisements on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. But monitoring political messages on WhatsApp groups remains a challenge.
Under the voluntary code of ethics or election rules, permission from SEC’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) is mandatory for any political advertisements. The committees are set up at the district and state level.
Under Mumbai city district committee, around 15 staff scan the Facebook pages of 89 candidates. “Monitoring of WhatsApp messages is entirely dependent on complaints. WhatsApp groups or messages doesn’t have open access like an FB post, so we entirely depend on complaints and take action accordingly,” said Raju Patodkar, in charge of Mumbai city MCMC.
Social media teams of political parties are increasingly using WhatsApp to woo voters. “For Mumbai we have 36 constituency heads, each tasked with spreading the party’s message through WhatsApp groups and other medium. These 36 heads have booth-level workers, who in turn have their WhatsApp groups,” said Santosh Gupta, international coordinator for BJP’s social media team.
Gupta was quick to add, “This is not in violation of the model code of conduct as this is just to spread the party’s message and not for campaigning for a candidate. If candidates have groups, they need to declare that in their affidavit.”
Introduced in the Lok Sabha elections, the committee is also tasked with checking ‘Boost Post’ on FB and the money spent for that. The money spent on FB Boost is added in the candidate’s election expenditure. The spending limit on advertisements, campaign is Rs 28 lakh for each candidate.
When a candidate boosts his or her post on FB, they can either select a target audience or friends and their friends who will then see their official page or message on their respective timelines. The candidates pay per boost. The committee tracks the money spent through the ‘page transparency’ tab on each candidate’s profile.
In addition to the social media platforms, the committee also monitors TV, radio channels, newspapers, magazines and other print medium for paid news. The state MCMC checks 36 national and local newspapers. Each district-level committee sends a daily report of candidates to their respective returning officers.
An official from the committee clarified that “no medium is barred for candidates from campaigning. They can use any medium, be it WhatsApp groups or Facebook. However, candidates are required to disclose all campaign mediums in their affidavit. What matters is, whether it has the potential to influence voters and was sent without permission from ECI; if yes, then it amounts to poll code violation.”