New rules of the game: Social media code of ethics goes into action ahead of LS polls

In a first, the Election Commission (EC) of India has published a social media code of ethics for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat, and TikTok are some of the platforms under regulation.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said that while formulating the code is a step in the right direction, it is still a work in progress.

Moreover, the social media sites are not obligated under Indian law to enforce this ethics code. They are voluntarily participating.

He said parties and candidates need to “follow in letter and spirit the commitments made in the Code of Ethics”.

The code came into force on March 20 and will stay in place until after the election results have been declared.

What does the social media code of ethics say?

The EC says this social media code of ethics has been developed to ensure free and fair Lok Sabha elections starting next month.

Under these guidelines, social media platforms will facilitate freedom of expression and allow access to information on electoral matters. They are also asked to undertake workshops to spread awareness of electoral conduct laws.

The EC will process violations of this code as ethics infractions under Section 126 of the Representative of the People Act within three hours.

This act details all the restrictions on election campaigning via electronic and social media. Most importantly, it regulates “campaign silence”; this means parties and candidates must stop campaigning within 48 hours of voting to avoid influencing voters last minute.

The social media sites will also create systems to expedite any reporting or processing of violations.

If asked by the EC, the Internet and Mobile Association of India will assist these social media platforms in enforcing this code.

The social media ethics code also reiterates that these companies establish special rules related to advertising on social media.

What about political advertisements?

Earlier this year, Google and Facebook unveiled new policies related to political advertising.

In an effort to curb foreign intervention in India’s elections and create a culture of transparency in campaign funding, the two social media giants debuted special procedures related to buying ads on their platforms.

Both companies require government-issued registration documents for parties and candidates wanting to buy ads for their campaigns.

They must also acquire a pre-certificate issued by the EC.

Google asks for extra verification once the ad buyer indicates that the ad is political. Facebook asks its advertisers to use their discretion while buying ads.

“We hope the ad authorisation process helps candidates, political parties, and other organisations provide people with more information about who’s behind the ads they see,” said Facebook.

Other platforms like Twitter have also cooperated with the government for ethics regulation leading up to the Lok Sabha elections.

Why has EC implemented this code of ethics?

These precautionary measures come amid the ongoing back and forth over the allegation of possible foreign intervention in the US Presidential election in 2016.

In 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a joint statement with the Department of Home land Security, Department of Justice, and national intelligence agencies addressing the possibility of election tampering in the 2020 elections.

“Our agencies have been working in unprecedented ways to combat influence efforts and to support state and local officials in securing our elections, including efforts to harden election infrastructure against interference,” said the FBI.

The statement also said it was concerned about Russian, Iranian, and Chinese interference in its elections through sponsored ad content, divisive social media posts, and unverified information on political candidates.

In reference to Twitter’s parliamentary hearing earlier in the year, Vice President of Public Policy Colin Cromwell said preserving the integrity of Indian elections is a priority for the platform.

“With the upcoming elections, we are working with Indian political parties to verify candidates, elected officials, and relevant party officials, whose accounts will be active in the public conversation,” said Cromwell. “We verify these accounts to empower healthy election conversations, and to provide confidence that these public figures are who they claim to be.”

Model Code of Conduct

The social media ethics code is a supplement to EC’s model code of conduct (MCC) that govern the Lok Sabha elections overall.

The MCC is a set of guidelines that dictates conduct for parties and candidates to ensure free and fair elections.

From regulating where parties can hold public rallies and processions to criminalising offences like bribing and intimidating voters, the MCC is a comprehensive code of ethics.

The cooperation between the Indian government and private social media platforms is a positive development as both sides seem invested in prioritising verifiable information and confidence in the electoral process.

If these websites and political parties are able to regulate their actions fairly and effectively, the Lok Sabha campaign should run smoothly.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Election CommissionLok Sabha Elections 2019Social Media