EC’s social media Do’s and Don’ts ahead of polls, explained

In a first, and after months of speculation, the Election Commission (EC) of India has mandated that all politicians and political parties must ensure their social media accounts comply with official guidelines on “acceptable “.

This means that official accounts of political parties and politicians cannot carry political ads or content that could “influence” voters, effective from Sunday when the dates for the upcoming Lok Sabha polls were announced.

“All the provisions of model code of conduct shall also apply to the content being posted on the social media by candidates and political parties,” the EC said as it announced the 2019 Lok Sabha poll schedule. 

This means all political ads on social media before the elections will require pre-certification from the EC. They have roped in online giants including Google, Facebook, Twitter to ensure free and fair elections, and take action on any content reported as a violation, by designated officers of the election body.

“The Internet and Mobile Association of India, in consultation with the Election Commission, is formulating a set of code of ethics for intermediary online platforms. This is work in progress,” said Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora on Sunday. 

Rules to campaign by

In a press briefing announcing the schedule for the April-May polls, the election chief said that the model code of conduct and its pre-certified political advertisement rules will apply to social media marketing as well.

This is the first time in the history of the country’s electoral exercise that all candidates will be asked to give details of their social media accounts, if any, at the time of filing their nomination papers for the national election.

In an attempt to distinguish between factual reports and fake news, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Share Chat, and search engines like Google have been asked to appoint officers and take action against those who violate the code of conduct, said the election chief.

Most of these tech giants, with increasing stake and expanding businesses in India, have reportedly “committed writing” to ensuring a special monitoring mechanism for a clean campaign. This entails accepting only pre-certified political advertisements, sharing expenditure on it with the election watchdog, and adhering to the “silence period” that comes into effect 48 hours before the polls.

These “grievance officers” for example, will take “necessary and prompt actions against the content published on their platforms”, said Arora. The social media companies will potentially have to take down offending content much faster than usual, bypassing the standard operating procedure for doing so.

The EC has also decided to bring the bulk SMSes/Voice messages on phone under the purview of pre-certification of election advertisements, just like electronic and radio advertisements. 

How airtight are these rules?

The newly-announced regulations, however, leave a lot to be desired.

Take the rule prohibiting politically motivating content from political parties/leaders’ accounts. Critics say this is hard to enforce since there are thousands of accounts that are not ‘officially’ connected with political parties, but help carry their messages. 

Furthermore, there is no clarity on how exactly the ECI would monitor and act against content on platforms like Facebook and Google to ensure compliance.

All we know is that the district and state-level media certification and monitoring committees, which vets all electronic and radio advertisements during the model code period, will now also have a social media expert on board to ensure that such campaign materials do not slip out without scrutiny. This is grossly inadequate to deal with a problem which has been festering for and has mutated into something more and ious.

What policies have other nations adopted?

Nobody was prepared for the impact of social media on politics, which evolved from digital campaigns and banner ads 10 years ago, to Cambridge Analytics harvesting Facebook data, or WhatsApp skewing Brazil’s presidential elections for the far-right.

But in hindsight, several nations are to the threats of micro-targeting over social media, by introducing reforms for greater transparency instead of trying to impose a ban on them altogether.

In view of the social media poses to democracy, ad transparency initiatives are the least we can do to preserve the integrity of elections. In the wake of several disinformation fiascoes, the European Commission, France, and the G7 nations announced many such initiatives last year, which require social media platforms and advertisers to develop a new Code of Practice on Disinformation. Under the Code, companies will be required not only to ensure transparency of political ads, but also restrict targeting options for political advertising.

France passed a law in July 2018, requiring social media platforms to disclose the identities of paid advertisers and the amounts they and empower them to sue for spreading fake news during an election. The law allowed courts to take down reports published during elections, if found to not be credible. However, it raised a lot of concerns about censorship. Meanwhile, Canada’s new legislation identifies a pre-election period when the amount of political spending would be restricted, while election officials will be able to clamp down on the distribution of false information.

How are social media companies preventing abuse of their platforms?

Last month, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was summoned before an Indian parliamentary panel to shed light on “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms”.

Pro-government TV networks reported that the MPs had actually summoned Twitter officials over “allegations of bias” against right-wing accounts, reports the BBC.

“To be clear, we do not review, or enforce our policies on the basis of political ideology. Every tweet and every account is treated impartially. We apply our policies fairly and judiciously for all,” a Twitter rson told the BBC at the time.

WhatsApp, which has 200 million users in India, recently released a white paper citing several measures it was taking to reduce, what it called, the “abuse” of the platform by politicians and political parties.

The messaging platform, which has its largest number of users in India, was used aggressively to push fake news and vitriolic hate propaganda before the 2014 general elections, and ever since. Doctored videos and reports have been blamed for a spate of mob lynchings and even riots, while experts are left scratching their heads, figuring out a way to monitor WhatsApp, which is encrypted end-to-end.

“We have seen a number of parties attempt to use WhatsApp in ways that it was not intended, and our firm message to them is that using it in that way will result in bans of our service,” Carl Woog, head of communications for WhatsApp, told reporters at a briefing last month.

As soon as Google got wind that foreign advertisers may have tried to influence the Irish referendum on abortion, it quickly rejected all ads related to it.

Facebook recently introduced its transparency tool, the Ad Library project which offers a searchable database consisting of “ads related to politics and issues of national importance that have been run on Facebook or Instagram”. 

In a similar effort to aid transparency in advertisements, Google said it will publish a “Political Advertising transparency report” and a “political ads library” with information on the sources of funding for online ads and campaigns.

Rules of political spending

Political spending on ads and campaign finance violations have derailed elections and referendums around the world. With the advent of social media and digital communication, the economics of politics has broadened in scope.

The EC on Monday said that payments made to internet companies and websites for carrying advertisements and campaign-related operational expenditure on making creative content, salaries and wages paid to the workers employed to maintain their social media account, will have to be accounted for with the EC, as campaign expenditure.

According to the official regulations, the election expenditure ceiling is largely Rs 70 lakh for candidates contesting Lok Sabha elections, except in Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Sikkim where it is Rs 54 lakh. 

Alt News‘s analysis of Facebook’s Ad Library report shows that between February 7 and March 2, pages run directly by BJP spent over Rs 1.5 crore on ads. Another recent report compiled by Facebook also says that BJP and its supporters lead in political ad spending, accounting for a lion’s share of total political advertising worth over Rs 4 crore on Facebook.

To put things in perspective, a pro-BJP page, Bharat Ke Mann Ki Baat, alone spent more than Rs 1.2 crore. A distant second was the Biju Janata Dal that spent a little over Rs 8.6 lakh while Congress comes third with an expenditure of over Rs 5.6 lakh on Facebook ads.

Why it matters

Gulf News makes a compelling argument against political ads on social media, saying fake news and targeted messages are splitting the world into partisan groups where no debate is possible. While the US is torn between hating Trump and loving him, Europe is increasingly split between anti-immigrant and populist sentiments, while Britain is largely undecided about Brexit.

Constant debate and a variety of viewpoints are healthy, but deep and permanent polarisation is not. The movement of such discussion, news, and political communication into the digital world, in fact, is adding to the polarisation. A recent survey has shown that urban Indians are among the most politically divided people in the world. The role that social media monitoring plays in such times is crucial, to say the least.

That said, it is possible to use the power of social media to develop a thoughtful strategy for your party’s prospects, to shape public debates and form opinions. Newly elected Congresswoman from New York, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s engaging Twitter and Instagram presence has now become a textbook case for impactful political communication over social media.

For now, it’s impossible to say if these measures will protect elections but what we do know for sure is that social media is now the dominant platform for political exchange—and disinformation for political points and exorbitant spending on political ads is the new normal.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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