Right before the 17th Lok Sabha Election scheduled to begin from April 11, the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora called for a meeting with the Indian representatives and heads of social media platforms on March 19, Tuesday. The meeting was scheduled to discuss multiple issues pertaining to the content and advertisements on social media since the implementation of Model Code of Conduct after the announcement of the election dates on March 10. Though the conversations regarding the role of social media in the general elections began way back in 2013 by the Election Commission, no significant action has been taken until now. The Indian Express reports that “according to IAMAI, the Internet base has more than doubled to almost half a billion users since the time of the last elections”. This is a significant reason for taking into consideration the impact of new media and social media on the general elections this year.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora

People at key positions present at the meeting:

  •     Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra and Ashok Lavasa.
  •     Mahima Kaul representing Twitter, Piyush Poddar and Chetan Krishnaswamy from Google, Shivnath Thujral from Facebook, Berges Y. Malu from ShareChat, Sasha Mathew from Whatsapp,  Apurva Mehta from Tiktok, Nagesh Banga from Bigo TV
  •     Chitrita Chatterjee from Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and President of IAMAI, Subho Roy.

Significant events before the meeting:

  •     January- Section 126 of The Representation of People’s Act 1951 was considered for certain amendments in relation to the inclusion of New Media and Social Media, which is presently not included under section 126. The changes were suggested by a 14-member EC committee chaired by Umesh Sinha, Deputy Election Commissioner.
  •     February 6 – Anurag Thakur, The Chairman of Parliamentary Committee, directed Collin Crowell, Vice President and Global Policy Head of Twitter, to appear before the committee and ensure the prevention of any foreign influence on the upcoming Indian Elections.
  •     February- IAMAI representing various social media giants co-worked with the poll panel to design a ‘Code of Ethics’ and “agreed to priority channels for the ECI within their grievance redressal mechanisms” and other election-related educational programs on these platforms.
  •     March 6- Post Anurag Thakur’s meeting with officials of social media giants, he confirmed these platforms accepted and agreed to the need of implementing corrective measures “to keep a check on posts that lead to communal tension, incite violence or pose threat to national security
  •     March 9- the EC prohibited the use of defence personnel in their election campaign or process. Following this, BJP leaders who had uploaded pictures of political posters with Wing Commander Abhinandan had to remove it.
  •    March 15- The EC wrote to social media giants to appear for a meeting on 19th March to discuss channels of grievance redressal, evolve a mechanism to prevent abuse on social media and a “notification mechanism” for the EC to flag violations, and work out awareness programs particularly during the silence period and a “general Code of Ethics by Social Media intermediaries”, as reported by The Indian Express.

Highlights of the Tuesday meeting:

  •     “The meeting was centred on discussing issues like appointment of dedicated grievance channel for expeditious action by the organizations, pre-certification and transparency in expenditure of political advertisements,”, as reported by The Business Standard
  •     All the social media companies were asked to make presentations on their roles at preventing circulation of fake news and misinformation
  •     The companies were asked to draw up their own ‘code of ethics’ and lay down operational details by March 20, Wednesday, when they agreed to meet for a second time.
  •     Ashok Lavasa suggested “a clear clause on users’ voluntarily agreeing not to misuse social media platforms for election or political purposes should be considered by the companies’, a Bussiness Standard report said.
  •     Sunil Chandra suggested, “deterrents like some punitive action against users misusing the platform should be considered pro-actively.
  •     An EC official after the meeting said, “Arora exhorted the Social Media Organizations, who are formidable force-multipliers, to come up with a similar Code for the ongoing election process in the immediate context and a lasting document in the long run.
  •    Subho Roy said, “Removal of content is very, very sensitive for intermediaries, therefore we want a legal order that cites a legal provision,”, as reported by the Scroll.in
IAMAI and Code of Ethics member participants present at the meeting

Steps implemented so far-

  •     Umesh Sinha, Deputy Election Commissioner, suggested that “no intermediary shall host any political advertisements without the prior approval of MCMC Committee” during silence period which refers to the crucial 48 hours before the poll, as reported by Entrackr.
  •     Various social media giants have appointed officers to take immediate action against malicious political content published on their respective platforms.
  •     Candidates will be required to submit details of their active social media account (if existing) at the time of filing of nominations, as reported by INC42.

According to data analysis, both BJP and Congress have spent enormously on social media advertisements and volunteers ahead of the Lok Sabha 2019 Elections. The Indian Express reported, “According to Facebook’s advertisement portal, Indians spent almost Rs 10 crore between February 24 and March 9 this year on political ads on the platform.” The Election Commission is taking the impact of social media influence into serious consideration ahead of 2019 General Elections and it is probable that the use of social media platforms for the purpose of Elections will be much more legalized in the near future.

Sources- ANI, Indian Express, Business Standard, Scroll.in, Entrackr, INC42

Image Credits- Scroll.in, Livemint, Business Insider, India.com

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