The election commission of India has issued (what appear to be initial) guidelines for the use of Social Media for election campaigning, saying that its attention has been drawn to ‘certain violations of the Electoral Law in the social media”, which, worryingly enough, it says “need to be regulated in the interest of transparency and level playing field in the elections.” The legal provisions related to election campaigning apply to social media as well, and the Election Commission’s guidelines are basic, essential, initial steps, with nothing worrying in particular, but perhaps not pervasive enough. They’ve looked at the following aspects of online campaigning:

1. Candidates’ Social Media accounts: Candidates are required to provide information about their (official) Social Media accounts, in the affidavits that they file at the time of filing nominations.

Our take: this is a necessary step, for a few reasons: in the absence of verification of accounts by Facebook and Twitter (which hasn’t covered everyone), authenticating accounts is important, because it helps validate whether certain statements are made online by a politician through an authenticated account, or by someone faking an identity. This helps voters, and twitter and facebook would do well to get access to these affidavits, and verify accounts using this information. If money is spent managing an authenticated account, then it needs to be accountable to the election commission, and this is also a step in that direction.

2. Pre-Certification of Political Advertisements: every registered/national and State political party and every contesting candidate proposing to issue advertisements on television channels and/ or on cable network will have to apply to Election Commission of India/designated officer for pre-certification of all political advertisements on electronic media (including Social Media) before the publication.

Our take: while online advertising requires spends, statements on Social Media are not necessarily advertisements. So, on Twitter, a promoted trend might cost Rs 5.5 lakh, but with the user-driven-amplification that Twitter provides, it’s not needed. Facebook, however, necessitates expenditure because it limits the reach of your updates even to subscribers. Thus, candidates are likely to spend on Facebook. Note that while messages might be subject to approval, online advertising is largely dynamic in nature, and spends can vary, depending on the reach of the advertisement, and the number of clicks (if candidates are using CPC), during a certain period. So, while the message may be certified by the EC, the spends are not going be easy to determine.

3. Submit expenditure on online campaigning: “This, among other things, shall include payments made to internet companies and websites for carrying advertisements and also campaign related operational expenditure on making of creative development of content, operational expenditure on salaries and wages paid to the team of workers employed by such candidates and political parties to maintain their social media accounts, etc.”

Our take: this is tricky, because what happens when a separate organization – for example, hypothetically, the “Friends of BJP” spend money building a website or managing properties or armies of social media accounts for the BJP? How do you distinguish between expenditure by a party, and expenditure on a party? Also, how do you place a value on work done by a volunteer online for, say, the Aam Aadmi Party?

This is something that the EC hasn’t been able to figure out, and the circular specifically mentions, on Content posted by persons other than candidates and political parties: The matter is being discussed with “the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology on practical ways to deal with the issue, in so far as they relate to, or can be reasonably connected with, the election campaigning of political parties and candidates.”

4. Application of Model Code of Conduct to content on Internet including social media: This is where there is ambiguity, and it becomes tricky. Download the model code of conduct here. Some points worth noting:

– Online abuse: the model code of conduct states that “(1) No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” and “(2) Criticism of other political parties, when made, shall be confined to their policies and programme, past record and work. Parties and Candidates shall refrain from criticism of all aspects of private life, not connected with the public activities of the leaders or workers of other parties. Criticism of other parties or their workers based on unverified allegations or distortion shall be avoided.”
Our take: While official accounts may not be used, these norms are clearly being violated by supporters of political parties online, and this has been the case for a while.

– 48 Hour Deadline: “(4) All parties and candidates shall avoid scrupulously all activities which are “corrupt practices” and offences under the election law, such as bribing of voters, intimidation of voters, impersonation of voters, canvassing within 100 meters of polling stations, holding public meetings during the period of 48 hours ending with the hour fixed for the close of the poll, and the transport and conveyance of voters to and from polling station.”
Our Take: How this is applicable is not very clear. Can candidates not use their social media accounts online in the 48 hours leading up to the elections, or, say, host a google hangout? What about speeches that were made before this deadline – can they be tweeted or broadcast? The difference between online and offline media is that online media is perpetual – it is on-demand and doesn’t need to be live or part of a live coverage.

– Government funds for online promotion: (i) (a) The Ministers shall not combine their official visit with electioneering work and shall not also make use of official machinery or personnel during the electioneering work.
(iv) Issue of advertisement at the cost of public exchequer in the newspapers and other media and the misuse of official mass media during the election period for partisan coverage of political news and publicity regarding achievements with a view to furthering the prospects of the party in power shall be scrupulously avoided.”

Our take: Does a social media campaign from the government for Bharat Nirman classify as the usage of government funds for publicity for the party in power? From the DAVP’s website, take a look at the Social Media plans for the Bharat Nirman project: content generation, promotion, interaction monitoring, organzing bloggers meets, SMO, SEO, Online Reputation Management. Details here.

I was a part of an NDTV show recently discussing the same issue, but before this circular was released. View the show here. Two key points, over and above those made in this post – Social Media is still a storm in a tea-cup without mainstream media support. The Internet doesn’t yet have the reach, and if mainstream media doesn’t cover it as extensively as it does, not many people will be impacted. Secondly, I’m opposed to the concept of curbing speech 48 hours prior to elections – why can’t candidates try and convince voters to vote for them leading up to the elections? Putting limits on expenditure is fine, monitoring speech for hate-speech is acceptable, but not curbs on speech as such. Social Media will address that issue, because even if candidates don’t speak, their supporters (paid or otherwise), will.