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Election Commission plans to bring social media giants in the ambit of paid news

The Election Commission (EC) is now planning to treat social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp among other, potential carriers of fake news that can influence polls, at par with the traditional media.

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With over 800 million voters, the Indian election is the biggest voting event in the world. Unarguably bigger than the World Cup or Super Bowl events. Small wonders that social media giants find it an ideal event to increase their revenue and user base via media consumption. The Election Commission (EC) is now planning to treat social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp among other, potential carriers of fake news that can influence polls, at par with the traditional media. A change in the nomenclature may bring these platforms in the ambit of paid news.

Currently, there is no specific law against "paid news". To make it applicable, the EC resorts to invoking Section 10A read with Section 77 of the Representation of Peoples Act (RPA) dealing with misreporting of funds and to treat publication of "reports" as political advertising. Once cleared, every promoted tweet, post and video by political parties on any of these social media platforms would be construed as paid news.

Speaking to DNA, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), O P Rawat said, "There are several allegations in the world against social media platforms and they are subject to many probes. We are taking all steps to contain this so that our elections do not get influenced by it." When asked if the EC is planning to treat social media at par with general media, Rawat said, "We are also considering it. So far we have tried to ensure that no harm is caused to our elections through social media."

Former CECs too are wary of the increasing influence of social media and the inability to control it. Former CEC, H S Brahma said, "The election related news on social media should be treated as paid news. The EC should be more aggressive. If need be, the EC should approach the top court."

Former CEC, V S Sampath said that India should prevail over them to locate their servers in India. "When it comes to enforcement of election laws, we have to be ruthless. To make them fall in line, we should even be ready to shut them off during the election period. We should not think that it will be a retrograde step," Sampath said.

Rawat said that the expert committee of EC has spoken to all social media platforms and taken commitment from them that any such material that can adversely affect elections will not be on their platforms. "It will remain in force from the time Model Code of Conduct comes into effect till the time of declaration of results," he said.

The role of social media in influencing elections by way of circulating fake and communally sensitive news has gained notoriety in the recent past. In India, most political parties have been found guilty of circulating fake news through pseudo names. Its impact was felt worldwide during the 2016 US Presidential elections.

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