The government is working on a strategy to enforce campaign silence on social media 48 hours before polls, as suggested by a parliamentary panel, government officials familiar with the matter said. The embargo, already followed by print and TV media, will likely be implemented on social networks during the summer’s Lok Sabha elections.
The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) is considering several options, including regulation through local internet service providers (ISP) and voluntary compliance by social media platforms, the two officials with direct knowledge of the matter said on condition of anonymity.
“Unlike print media and television channels, strict enforcement of section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, on social media is not easy because of the global nature of their users,” one of the officials said.
“Besides, their servers are located overseas, beyond the legal jurisdiction of India,” the official added.
Although most of the social media platforms have been working hard to prevent their misuse during elections, they have been repeatedly accused of not doing enough, thereby allowing democratic processes to be subverted, the second official said.
“Parliamentarians are very concerned about the misuse of social media [Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp] during elections. These companies must address their concerns. They must respect India’s parliamentary committee. They have to observe law of the land if they want to do business in India, a lucrative market for them,” this person added.
A spokesperson for Twitter said the popular micro-blogging site was willing to cooperate with the government and the Election Commission on this matter.
“Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, which is a cornerstone for all democracies, and we continue to actively engage with the Election Commission of India to protect electoral integrity in India and enhance the health of the public conversation from now through elections,” the spokesperson said in an email.
WhatsApp India spokesperson Pragya Misra Mehrishi pointed to a link to its platform, which details a “fact sheet on safety in India” that the company has “put together for the election”.
The link explains that “WhatsApp cares deeply” about the safety of its users in India and around the world. “In the run-up to the 2019 national election, WhatsApp has made significant product changes and worked with partners across civil society to address the harmful consequences of misinformation,” it adds.
WhatsApp has also released a “white paper” on “tackling abuse – particularly bulk and automated messaging,” she said.
Representatives of Election Commission, MeitY and Facebook did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
On February 11, Facebook said in a statement that it had expanded its third party fact-checking programme in India as it looks to combat the spread of “fake news” on its platform ahead of general elections.It has hired former journalist Natasha Jog as its election integrity officer.
Apart from reviewing articles, the US-based company has also equipped checkers with tools to review photos and videos to “help identify and take action against more types of misinformation”.
“We are committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook, especially ahead of the 2019 general election campaign season. And one way to do that is by growing our partnership with third party fact-checkers. We now have seven partners across the country covering six languages, who will review and rate the accuracy of stories on Facebook,” Facebook India news partnership head Manish Khanduri had said.
Then chief election commissioner OP Rawat said in an interview to HT published on October 1 that attempts to sway election outcomes by manipulating voters through technological interventions had emerged as the biggest challenge for the electoral process.
“Instead of direct bribing of voters, it is now moving to technology and big data firms and services like targeted communication on social media and analysis on where to focus so as to tilt the voting behaviour in a party’s favour… All these sophisticated techniques, which may cost a bomb, are being resorted to,” Rawat said in that interview.
According to the officials cited, the parliamentary panel, headed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Anurag Thakur, has directed MeitY to ensure that the forthcoming general elections are safe from manipulations through external influences.
The ministry has been given a week’s time to provide an action plan to the panel.
Elections in India will likely be held in April and May, and an announcement to this effect is expected in the first week of March.
According to a person familiar with the discussions of the panel who did not want to be named, there was concern over growing use of multiple social media platforms and the desire to ensure that elections cannot be influenced through them.
“Members felt that the ministry should be aware of the possibility of elections being influenced by technology and should have a plan in place for what is required to be done,” this person added.
A second person familiar with the discussions said that there was concern among members about the “role” of social media platforms in shaping public opinion.
“The question that needs to be answered is whether these are just platforms for carrying messages, as claimed by them, or are they platforms that can mould public opinion, in which case they become media houses. And if they are media houses, then they need to submit to the rules of the information and broadcasting ministry, which has specific laws on foreign ownership of media,” the second person said on condition of anonymity.
The poll panel has written to the law ministry seeking to bring social media platforms and news portals under the purview of section 126.
The Election Commission appointed a 14-member committee headed by Umesh Sinha to suggest changes to section 126 of the Representation of the People’s Act keeping new media realities in mind.
The government will also consider the committee’s report while suggesting guidelines for social media. The committee, with representatives from the ministry of information and broadcasting, MeitY, the law ministry, the Press Council of India and the News Broadcasters Association, submitted its report on January 10.
“The recommendations made by the committee, when implemented , will help in minimising the possible interference of activities which aim at indirectly influencing voters during the valuable silence period of 48 hours provided to them. The recommendations of the committee will be considered by the commission in detail for follow up action,” an EC statement had said.
The statement, however, said that the task of maintaining “campaign silence” during the last 48 hours before the conclusion of polling is becoming increasingly onerous in the light of the increasing influence of digital media.
EC often gets information about violations concerning the model code of conduct though political opponents of candidates, an expert in media-related matters said, requesting anonymity.
In December 2017, EC directed its Gujarat office to file an FIR against those who violated section 126 after it received a complaint that some TV channels in Gujarat carried an interview of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during the 48-hour silence period. This was done a day ahead of the second phase of polling for the then ongoing state elections.