To address fake news and hate speech during elections in India, social Media platforms are appointing dedicated grievance officers to “take necessary and prompt actions against the contents published on their platforms”, the Chief Election Commissioner of India Sunil Arora said today while announcing dates for elections. Intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have committed in writing to ensure that any political advertisement published on their platforms will be certified by Election Commission’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee. Candidates will also have to include online and social media elections expenditure in their expenditure disclosures.

Key takeways from the announcement:

1. On Fake News:
– To keep a check on fake news and hate speech during elections, Social Media platforms have appointed dedicated grievance officers to “take necessary and prompt actions against the contents published on their platforms.”
– Social Media platforms have committed to take action on any content reported by designated officers of Election Commission of India, which violates the electoral laws.
– Internet and Mobile Association of India, in consultation with the Election Commission of India, is formulating a set of code of ethics for intermediary online platforms. This is a work in progress.

2. Online political advertising:
– Google and Facebook will do verification of political advertisers.
– All expenditure of campaigning on social media is to be included in the candidates election expenditure disclosure.
– Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have committed in writing to ensure that any political advertising published on their platforms will be pre-certified by the Election Commission’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC). The committee has an additional member with expertise in social media at the state and district level. The media certification and monitoring committees have been constituted in all the states and districts, and they will also deal with the problem of paid news and other media related violations.

3. Model Code of Conduct:
– will apply to political advertising AND social media content being posted by political parties.
– All candidates have to disclose their social media accounts to the Election Commission
– Election Commission has an app where citizens can provide them information about violating of model code of conduct.  A pilot was conducted under the direct supervision of the commission and “subsequently extended to 5 poll-going states. In these 5 poll-gone states almost 28000 complaints were received.” A citizen can give his or her name or number, and the authority is duty bound to report back within 100 minutes the action being taken/proposed to be taken etc. If a pertinent complainant feels vulnerable about, for example, large cash transaction happening somewhere, and doesn’t want his or her name to be revealed, the commission will get it published in the local paper so that he or she becomes aware of the action being taken, and the privacy is still protected. “We are really hopeful, that when it is used pan-India, it will add another dimension to the empowerment of citizens. ”

MediaNama’s take:

  1. What about WhatsApp? The one platform that doesn’t come into consideration, and given that it has positioned itself as a messaging platform and not a social network, is WhatsApp. How will WhatsApp deal with hate speech and fake news on its platform, when it is end-to-end encrypted, and grievance officers won’t be in a position to read the content? Technically, content isn’t published on WhatsApp, it is messaged: it’s narrowcast and not broadcast. Do restrictions on campaigning via mass media and broadcast apply to messaging from one person to another? As a messaging medium, is WhatsApp is exempt from the actions of election commission?
  2. The model code of conduct cant apply to political party supporters: why I’ve consistently, from 2014 onwards, said that any limit to campaigning is irrelevant, is because as much as the Election Commission can prevent political parties from spending and campaigning close to the date of a constituency going to polls, there is no way that it can prevent supporters from promoting candidates, and also sharing content (videos, images, excerpts from speeches) of candidates.
  3. What about paid “influencer” campaigns? Co-ordinated paid political messaging should qualify as advertising and promotions, and platforms like Twitter have failed miserably (or not even tried to contain) campaigns that make political speeches and candidates trend. How is the Election Commission, or even the platforms that have promised to bring transparency to political expenditure online deal with this aspect? For example, see this thread from security researcher Baptiste: around 68,543 tweets, peaking at 250 tweets per minute on a hashtag, and around 12000 tweets per hour. Also, Bollywood celebrities can always be asked to promote on social media, and they prefer cash. More on that here.
  4. What about other ad networks? There’s an entire world of advertising outside of bigger players like Facebook, Google and Twitter. There are services like Taboola and Outbrain that do content advertising, and hundreds of thousands of advertising networks that also reach Indian users. I guess the Election Commission is doing the best it can here.
  5. What about the Chinese apps? Bytedance owned TikTok and Helo are now significant in India, with a large Indian audience. Hasn’t the election commission considered them significant enough to look into social media profiles of candidates, political parties, and paid campaigns by supporters on these platforms?