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”. A summary of what platforms have agreed to in the code (see a copy at the bottom):

  1. Notification mechanism for ECI to report violations to platforms: Platforms have developed a notification mechanism for the ECI to legally notify them of potential violations of Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and other electoral laws. The notification system for Google is a Google webform; a legal submissions portal page for Twitter; an email address for ShareChat and Facebook, per the Indian Express. Company officials said that they are yet to train the ECI on how to use their notification systems.
  2. Action within 3 hours for violations of 48-hour silent period: For reported violations of Section 126 of the RP Act – which prohibits political parties and candidates from campaigning in the two days before voting – platforms will acknowledge and/ or process these legal orders within 3 hours (as per the Sinha Committee recommendations). For other legal requests, platforms will act upon them “expeditiously” based on the nature of reported violation.
  3. Platforms committed to “creating/opening a high priority dedicated reporting mechanism” for the ECI and “appoint dedicated person(s) / teams” during elections to contact and exchange feedback for acting upon legal requests from the ECI.
  4. Pre-certification for political advertisers: The code requires platforms to provide a method for political advertisers to submit pre-certificates issued by ECI or its Media Certification & Monitoring Committee (MCMC) for running election-related ads. It requires that platforms “expeditiously” act on paid political ads which do not have a certification, as the ECI notifies. “Platforms will commit to facilitating transparency in paid political advertisements, including utilising their pre-existing labels/disclosure technology for such advertisements,” states the code.
  5. Communication between the ECI, IAMAI, and platforms: Platforms will update the ECI (via the IAMAI) on measures they have taken to prevent abuse of their platforms, pursuant to legal requests by the ECI. IAMAI will coordinate with platforms on the steps carried out under this Code, the industry body and the platforms will be in “constant communication” with the ECI during the election period. “Participants will deploy appropriate policies and processes to facilitate access to information regarding electoral matters on their products and/or services…” reads the code.
  6. Awareness and education campaigns: The members will carry out information, education and communication campaigns to build awareness including electoral laws and other related instructions.
  7. Training nodal officers: Platforms will train their nodal officers to the ECI on their products, and on the mechanism for sending requests to the platforms as per procedure established by law.

Some issues relating to the code of ethics and its sudden drafting and implementation:

  1. Too late for pre-certification of political advertisers?: Facebook India began verifying political advertisements in late December, and was able to launch its political ads library roughly within the next 1.5 months in February. Google India announced its political advertisers verification and political ads library in January, but the library still has not gone live. Assuming it takes a minimum period of 4-6 weeks to give pre-certification for advertisers and add disclosures, what can be practically achieved by platforms like ShareChat and other IAMAI members, with only 2 weeks left for elections? Similarly, it may be too late for awareness and education campaigns to be effective. Platforms would have to first identify issues, differentiate them across languages, formulate campaigns, and then actually push it out, all within the next 15 days.
  2. Issues relating to Media Certification & Monitoring Committees: The Election Commission mandates formation of Media Certification & Monitoring Committees at state and districts levels, this would mean at least 725 such district-level committees, and 29 state level committee. It remains unanswered whether how the platforms will train these committees on notifying/sending legal requests, whether the ECI will send reports via state or district level committees, and whether the social media expert/intermediary member of the MCMC will play a role in such monitoring of content on platforms, or how the platforms will respond to an unexpected volume of complaints. It also remains to be seen how platforms will deal with takedown requests during the 48-hour silent period. Time and speed is of essence when it comes to takedown of violative content. The platform is required to simply acknowledge the legal request to the ECI, a definite timeline on whether a post will actually to be taken down or not is necessary.

Social media platforms and IAMAI’s Voluntary Code of Ethics for Lok Sabha Elections 2019: