The Election Commission has announced that it will closely monitor the social media campaigns of parties and candidates in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. It has enlisted the cooperation of Google, Facebook and Twitter to uphold “the integrity of the political campaigns on their platforms”. As much as the Election Commission must be commended for factoring in social media activities in its overall governance of the electoral process, it is unclear how effectively it can manage to do this.
Even if a significant number — around 40 per cent in urban and 20 per cent in rural areas — of the 90 crore eligible Indian voters are on social media, let us be clear that tackling the regular offline issues during elections is far more important.
Making realistic rules
Preventing and punishing violations of the Model Code of Conduct on the ground remains the most important task for the Election Commission (EC). Just read the first few points of the model code, and ask yourself when was the last time it was truly observed. The EC is also required to enforce our absurd campaign finance laws that believe that a Lok Sabha election can be fought within a budget of Rs 70 lakh (a mere Rs 5 per voter). The only lesson from this hypocritical make-believe is that if rules are absurd and unrealistic, they are bound to be ignored by everyone concerned. And the principal casualty is the notion that law-abiding conduct is actually possible.
Unless our rules are realistic, they will not only be abused, but the abuse will be accepted by society. The offline conduct of candidates and parties is already difficult to regulate. Online conduct will be even more so. Worse, because social media involves both candidates and voters, it is impossible to apply the old rules of the offline world to online interactions without violating citizens’ rights of free expression.
What might be the Election Commission’s policy objectives with respect to social media? First, to ensure that the model code of conduct, campaign finance and other regulations are not violated online. Second, to protect the electoral process from being manipulated by foreign and domestic interests. And third, to ensure that voters have sufficient time for reflection before voting. Let’s examine each in turn.
Preventing malpractice online
It will be a good start if the EC can ensure that official handles of political parties, office bearers and candidates are scrutinised for violations of the model code and expenditure limits.
To this end, the EC has modified the Media Certification & Monitoring Committees (MCMCs) to include telecom operators, ISPs and social media experts. It is making online political advertising more transparent and seeking details of online expenditure from Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. Along with cVIGIL, its app for reporting electoral misconduct, these are good, pragmatic measures.
The only problem is that they can easily be circumvented.
Unless the EC enforces regulations on individuals it deems as connected with a candidate or party, any third party can publish anything online and spend unlimited amounts of money on pushing a political agenda.
It would be highly problematic for the EC to enforce regulations on individuals on such a “deemed” basis without violating fundamental rights. Given that such proxy campaigning, advertising and expenditure is already common practice offline, we should expect it with regard to social media too.
That’s not the only dilemma. While it is legitimate for a social media platform to take down a post on the EC’s direction, it is altogether a different matter to allow Google, Facebook, Twitter and others to do so on their own. In the process of preventing electoral malpractices online, we should not empower private firms to exercise political censorship and thereby influence electoral outcomes.
This brings us to the next issue — protecting the electoral process from being manipulated or hijacked by vested interests.
After the 2016 presidential election in the US, there have been serious concerns across the democratic world on the vulnerability of the electoral process to the information warfare. While it is a stretch to conclude that organised efforts to influence public opinion are decisive, they will increasingly influence the marginal voter.
Studies in cognitive psychology suggest that people are prone to believe what they think others believe, than arrive at their own independent rational decisions. Indeed, more than foreign manipulators, it is the IT cells of domestic political parties that we need to be concerned about. Given that they can operate with plausible deniability, it is unclear what the Election Commission can do about them.
Finally, as the EC describes, “the task of maintaining campaign silence during last 48 hours before the conclusion of polling is becoming increasingly onerous in the light of the increasing influence of digital media”.
The idea behind the cooling off period is to allow voters to think through their voting decision. While a committee appointed by the EC submitted a report a couple of months ago, it is unclear what exactly it proposes to do. Although the statute, Section 126 of The Representation of the People Act, 1951 applies to all persons, it would be either impractical or grossly draconian for the EC to prosecute ordinary citizens for discussing “election matters” in the 48-hour period before polling commences.
So, in all likelihood, the EC will meet limited success in managing electoral conduct over social media. That, however, is not the EC’s fault, for it is doing what it can within the bounds of its statutory framework. The real question is deeper and more fundamental: to what extent are Industrial Age democratic processes effective in the Information Age?
Even as we attempt to answer that question, it is abundantly clear that the advent of social media makes the need for electoral reform in India more urgent than ever.
The author is director of the Takshashila Institution.