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Unequal Footing

During elections, campaigning rules for social media should be more overarching.
Sonal Khetarpal | Print Edition: December 30, 2018
Unequal Footing

With the 2019 general election approaching (several states are also going to assembly polls this year), political slugfests, past achievements and future promises continue to dominate social media feeds in a bid to win over the Indian electorate.

That social media, in the form of an opinion shaper, is widely used to sway elections is a given, especially after it was credited with Trump's victory in the US Presidential elections. India, too, is not far behind as social tools played a significant role in the BJP's victory in 2014.

Nearly all political parties have social media 'warriors' to reach out to people on the ground. The BJP's Rajasthan social media cell reportedly has 51,000 IT workers so that one can be at each booth while 10-member IT teams can connect with all through WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and the likes. In all, the party is connected to nearly 14.5 lakh people on WhatsApp and around 6.5 lakh on Facebook.

There is a hitch, though. According to election laws, specific rules must be observed for campaigning and these are the same for social media, print and electronic media. But digital media differs a lot from the other two, and hence, the effectiveness of these provisions has been diluted, says Virag Gupta, Supreme Court lawyer and Partner at the law firm VAS Global.

For instance, candidates have to submit details of their social media accounts and the expenditure incurred on those platforms. But an analysis by the Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), a think tank, reveals that only five Lok Sabha MPs had disclosed their expenditure on social media use and advertisements in the 2014 general election.

Another law mandates a silence period of 48 hours before polling starts, but voters are still contacted until the last minute due to the ease of spreading messages via digital platforms and the stringent privacy they offer. Hence, the Election Commission (EC) should make it a priority to have a more comprehensive and rigorous policy in place for social media companies to ensure free and fair elections.

According to Gupta, the poll watchdog must direct all social media companies to furnish details of direct and indirect payments received from all political parties/candidates located within or outside the country, and ask political parties to submit affidavits for details of their social media expenditure during the election period. The EC should also ask candidates to submit similar affidavits to provide details of the social media groups created by them or their parties or those run on their behalf. It should also ask digital media companies to share such information. Finally, social media firms should not be allowed to use or provide the data to any third party for political leverage.

Gaurav Pathak, lawyer and General Secretary at CASC, says that social media companies should suspend all political groups during the silence period. A national toll-free number should be there to report a violation of this rule and there should be social media observers to enforce the same.

@sonalkhetarpal7

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