What Google, Facebook are doing to ensure ‘free and fair’ 2019 elections, explained

On Monday, Facebook and Google informed the Bombay High Court of their new rules for political advertisements. In the Lok Sabha election run-up, the two social media giants are setting stringent rules to prevent “foreign intervention”.

Both, Facebook and Google, began enforcing their policies this month.

Google’s policy

Google now has forms available that people buying ads must fill to begin the verification process; it lasts about five business days and essentially asks the buyer to disclose who is paying for the ad.

“Google will automatically generate a ‘Paid for by’ disclosure, using the information provided during this verification process,” says Google. This means that every ad on the platform will publicly display the political party, business or individual’s name.

The verification process also asks for various documentation—a government-issued ID; yours or your company’s or your political party’s registration documents; a No-Objection Certificate by the political party authorising you or your agency to run ads on its behalf; and an attestation that you or your agency are legally registered in India.

Advertisers must also acquire a pre-certificate issued by the Election Commission of India (ECI) or a source it authorises.

The Times of India reports that Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice Nitin Jamdar told the ECI to file an affidavit detailing its requirements for this certificate. “Make expressedly [sic] clear that legal provisions for election campaigning apply to social media. Essential safeguards should be in place to ensure free and fair elections,” the judges said.

Google clarified that election advertisements don’t include ads run by non-political entities, such as news organisations or companies selling merchandise like t-shirts, even if these entities seek to promote a political party or candidate.

However, to aid transparency in advertisements, Google has 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.

Facebook’s policy

Facebook considers ads made by, about or on behalf of current and former candidates, parties, elections, or voting initiatives as political content. It also says it will consider ads “related to politics or issues of national importance” as political.

At this point, the platform does not have a list of national issues; hence, it asks advertisers to exercise their own judgement and disclose information accordingly.

For political ads, Facebook requires an Indian passport, driver’s licence, and a PAN or voter ID card for verification.

Facebook has exempted news organisations from this policy; they are, however, registered in three lists: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Audit Bureau of Circulation, and Comscore.

Facebook explains that it is up to the advertiser to comply with election regulations and advertising laws in India. “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’re seeing,” said Facebook.

Government efforts to regulate political content

This year, a committee was tasked with reviewing Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act; it states campaigning must stop within 48 hours before polling day.

Specifically, this committee submitted a plan to include social media communication in Section 126. It also released a statement saying it passed along its recommendations to the ECI for action.

ECI counsel Pradeep Rajagopal informed the HC that Section 126 applied to social media campaigning, as well. He added that systems will be established to check political entities and organisations but not individuals.

Advocate Sagar Suryawanshi has filed a PIL demanding that the ECI also prohibit ordinary people (including politicians) from airing election-related ads and paid political content on social media 48 hours before polling day.

The court asked the ECI to file an affidavit responding to Suryawanshi’s PIL.

HuffPost reports the ECI demanded that social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, only publish those ads it has pre-approved. It also asked for the power to remove content in violation of election rules, besides all political content 48 hours before the polls.

However, the Lok Sabha must amend laws to make ECI’s demands a reality; this is unlikely to happen before the 2019 elections.

Do Facebook and Google’s policies help?

Google India said in a statement, “In 2019, more than 850 million Indians are expected to cast their vote to elect the country’s next government. To support the democratic process, Google is bringing more openness to election advertising online and helping connect people to useful and relevant election-related information.”

While these steps are in the right direction, by increasing the transparency in funding, there are still some underlying issues.

Users are still responsible for reading the disclaimer on ad funding and comprehending that it is politically motivated. This is challenging if an individual does not have enough political knowledge to identify all parties and their associates, because the disclaimer will only identify the advertiser’s name or agency.

Another potential problem is that news organisations and non-political entities engaged in activities like selling political merchandise are exempt from the policy. This means partisan news sources or sensationalist media outlets and companies selling items with discriminatory text, slurs, or images, for example, will be able to promote themselves without difficulty.

The ECI has also not secured any of the changes it demanded.

While Google and Facebook’s new restrictions might help, government regulation done in good faith is at the heart of ensuring free and fair elections.

Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius

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