Robust scepticism, that indispensable tool for informed, intelligent navigation through a world increasingly embracing polarisation, remains conspicuous by its absence in the current political discourse in India. The tidal wave of unstinted, blind support is emblematic of not only political parties and their ideologies, but also characterises the polity’s susceptibility to fads. This susceptibility gets manifested into gigantic follies when policy prescriptions and elaborate political strategies are drawn up on the basis of supposed trends which are mostly nothing but hot air.
Social media’s burgeoning popularity and supposed ability to play a decisive role in elections happens to be one such trend, more of a fad. It all started with Tumasam , et al’s 2010 article Predicting Elections with Twitter: What 140 Characters Reveal about Political Sentiment which attributed a decisive role to Twitter in predicting election results. The 2012 US Presidential elections, which witnessed a propaganda and campaigning blitzkrieg, only reinforced this belief, completely eliding research such as this one- "I Wanted to Predict Elections with Twitter and all I got was this Lousy Paper" by Daniel Avello, which could make this whole shebang fall apart.
Nevertheless, when a policy is put in place, and when such policy has a potential bearing on many arenas besides election campaigning, it becomes imperative to subject it to scrutiny.
Yesterday, the Election Commission of India issued a set of guidelines regarding the use of social media in election campaigning, necessitated by the flouting of the provisions of electoral laws which jeopardised the constitutional mandate of free and fair elections. Besides laying down norms regarding the disclosure and authentication of candidates’ social media profiles, pre-certification of online advertisements and full disclosure of expenditure incurred on Internet campaigns, these guidelines also make the Model Code of Conduct applicable to poll campaigns over the Internet, including social media.
Notwithstanding the hype over social media and its proliferation or effectiveness, fact remains that election campaigning over the years has turned into a grotesque farce, a hotbed of malpractices and corruption. Way back in 1993-94, T.N. Seshan cracked down on this brazen pantomime by a stringent and hitherto unprecedented enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct. He brought it into public consciousness as a symbol of the underlying notion that elections called for a different morality than the one prevailing in everyday politics. The blatant use of money and muscle power in campaigning bore the maximum brunt of his ire. While it did clean up the system to some extent, it also drove campaigning underground, and people soon figured out how to circumvent the system. And such strategic violations prove to be the most subversive of democracy.
Foremost and the most pernicious among them is the proliferation of paid news. With the sheet anchor of anonymity provided by the vast terrain of the Internet, and the still rudimentary, mostly nebulous and severely problematic laws to govern such terrain, it becomes much easier for someone to purchase “support” and purple prose and propagandise it as popular opinion. Hence, the EC is justified in demanding that parties and candidates come clean on how much they are spending on internet advertisement campaigns, how exactly such money is being spent, and who exactly have been hired or employed. But the implementation would prove to be a treacherous minefield.
For one, this is the age of advertorials, where even the country’s largest newspaper group strenuously refutes (even in the face of overwhelming evidence) all charges of having sold its editorial space. Endorsement and a barrage of hosannas in cyberspace operate distinctly from hoardings, banners and mammoth cut-outs of leaders on the ground. Moreover, the Press Council of India’s rules on election coverage apply only to newspapers, giving a veritable free-for-all to actors in the blogosphere and online “news” portals such as this and this which proclaim to be the harbingers of THE truth, but in reality spew divisive propaganda and venomous lies to drum up support for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Two, no political party till date has an officially designated “social media cell” which has a number of dedicated, registered workers assigned the task of disseminating information and earning popularity. There are IT (Information Technology) cells, but no one knows exactly who, and how many people are working on the campaigning, and in what capacity. Unlike in the United States where election campaigning is a professional industry its own right, parties India depend upon volunteers and their loyalty, which are not contingent upon pecuniary returns (not in the tangible sense, in most cases). Those running these IT Cells do so out of pure volition, and avowedly claim abhorrence towards accepting money. Kim Arora profiles Sanjay Jha who advises the Congress and plays a stellar role in its online campaign, but resolutely states: “My company does not have any contract with the Congress. I don’t do this for commercial benefit.” Similarly, the Congress’ rival candidate has “employed” a couple of tech entrepreneurs to spearhead his social media thrust, but one of them, BG Mahesh, clearly denies affiliation to any particular political party, and remains silent on commercial considerations, if any.
Three, parties depend a lot upon their cadres or volunteers, the number of which runs into thousands, and is going on burgeoning as the polls draw near. The best example of this is Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which runs a very vigorous online campaign and claims to rely solely on avowedly selfless volunteers and loyalists, who in turn claim that the only reward they expect for their toil is to eradicate corruption from Indian politics. Now if the EC passes strictures or cracks down on the AAP for non-compliance with its guidelines, the alleged abrogation of democratic rights will be something to worry about.
Besides the malignant phenomenon of paid news, the perils of hate speech and malicious propaganda and the lightening speed with which it can spread, and how vociferously it can be amplified, could possibly be another violation of electoral laws. Last year’s incidents about the riots in Myanmar and the recent slugfest over the alleged role of fake videos which went viral in the Muzzafarnagar riots indicate that social media is the most scapegoat. One is not denying the mischief potential of social media in a country like India which is on a perennial tinderbox causing communal conflagration, but it is definitely not as dangerous as in Kenya, where the demand- “The demented postings on social media must stop before blood flows" compelled the government to maintain an ironclad grip lest the bloodshed of 2007 was repeated in the run up to and aftermath of the recent presidential elections.
However, when the EC applies the Model Code of Conduct to content on the internet, including social media, concerns about freedom of expression cannot help being raised. This gets more complicated when one considers how it would be possible to ensure that all campaigning on social media is halted 48 hours prior to polling, as mandated by Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act. Moreover, even at the cost of repetition, it deserves to be reiterated that in so far as social media is concerned, “campaigning” is quite an intractable term. If one goes by the substantive effect of communication, even if a poll candidate remains silent, a tweet or Facebook post by an enthusiastic supporter or a horde of loyalists influential on social media can certainly serve the purpose of propaganda quite admirably.
More worrisome is the legal quagmire of defining hate speech. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the Model Code of Conduct does have legal sanction and can be used by the EC to disqualify a candidate and press for his prosecution, as V. Venkatesan cogently argues here.
Lastly, one must contend with provision E of the aforementioned social media campaigning guidelines. It states- “As far as the content posted by persons other than candidates and political parties is concerned, the Commission is considering the matter in consultation 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.” Though still under consideration, such a provision is foreboding. How can one define “reasonably connected with”? And it is common knowledge that the IT Ministry, prone as it is to knee-jerk reactions, considers dragnet surveillance and blanket blocking as the most “practical” of means.
The EC’s intentions are laudable, but the practical hurdles of implementation threaten to jeopardise the very democratic principles which are sought to be protected.
(Saurav teaches media law and jurisprudence in Bombay and Pune)