Election Code and New Age Media
TOPIC: General studies 2 and Essay
- Role of media and social networking sites in Elections
- Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation
- Governance issues
In Discussion: Social media platforms Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, ShareChat, TikTok and the IAMAI have agreed to a voluntary code of ethics to abide by during the Lok Sabha Elections 2019, which are set to begin on April 11. The code came into effect on March 20, and will remain in force throughout the elections.
Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora said although the code is a good beginning, its “essentially a work in making”. The general election will see global and Indian social media outlets following the ‘voluntary code’ on taking down ‘problematic content’ and bringing ‘transparency in political advertising’. According to the code, companies will have three hours to take down objectionable content in the silent period of 48 hours before polling.
Why is it important?
Almost a third of India’s 900 million voters are active on social media, making this one of the world’s biggest ever attempts to monitor internet content. The potential for abuse is also immense, with incendiary news and videos capable of fanning violence in the sprawling multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation. Fake news and messages circulated on social media have led to more than 30 deaths since last year, data portal IndiaSpend says, mostly rumours about child kidnapping gangs.
With the Lok Sabha elections coming up, it is critically important that Indians have access to credible and trustworthy information before they vote. The problem is that many do not feel they do. In a brand-new survey of English-language Internet users in India conducted by the University of Oxford, we have found that a majority of the respondents are concerned with whether the news they come across online is real or fake.
So, when many Indians in the run-up to the elections say they are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the Internet, this is clearly in part about social media and digital platforms. But unfortunately, it is also about some news media and some politicians who people see as part of the disinformation problems that India faces. It is only a few years ago that the Press Council of India said that “the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has acquired serious dimensions”, “goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organised.” The Press Council concluded: “It is undermining democracy in India.” Cobrapost’s sting operation last summer, which exposed large media houses willing to peddle propaganda as news, demonstrates that some of these problems persist.
Social Media: Great Power, Greater Responsibility
Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, new media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, have become political battlegrounds. These spaces of electioneering have, however, remained unregulated because the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951, does not cover social media.
Section 126 of the RPA prohibits political parties and candidates from campaigning in the two days before voting. In January, an EC panel suggested bringing social media platforms under the Act’s ambit so that voters are “afforded a period of reflection”.
The panel suggested that these new media platforms should abide by the EC’s guidelines about taking down “objectionable content”. Social media outfits, however, did not agree with the recommendation that such content “be taken down within three hours of a notice”. But it is reassuring that the Code addresses the EC’s concerns: “Valid legal orders will be acknowledged and/ or processed within three hours for violations reported under Section 126”.
Also welcome is the Code’s insistence on “transparency in paid political advertisements”. Any political advertisement posted without the EC’s certification and notified as such by the EC will be acted upon expeditiously.
The Code asks social media firms to train the EC’s nodal officers on how their “platforms work and on mechanisms for sending requests on dealing with offensive material”. These companies will also develop a “reporting mechanism” through which the poll watchdog can inform the platforms about “potential violations of Section 126”.
Social media platform companies have much to do to improve their content moderation and contain disinformation. The Code’s success will depend, in large measure, on how these channels of communication work, and the measures they take to put the document’s guidelines into practice.
Media should act as a mirror that reflects the reality, neither magnifying nor diminishing, neither distorting nor mystifying facts, and should “shun this tendency lest ‘money power’ is used to influence voters through ‘manufactured’ views and opinions of paid news”. To make elections more credible and inclusive the pitfalls such as money and muscle power, breaching the limits of election expenditure, invoking caste and religion, criminal antecedents of candidates, paid news and fake news, violating the Model Code of Conduct, inadequate representation of women in legislatures need to be addressed in quick time. We must foresee that these 4C’s are coming and must be careful – Cash, Community, Caste and Criminality.
If the media can present report card and the people can demand accountability from political party’s vis-a-vis their promises, raising resources and how they intend to spend them, our country can boast of not only being the largest democracy in the world but also one of the most vibrant, cleanest democracies in the world.