PANAJI, Goa — The Election Commission of India (ECI) has recommended that social media and online platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google only carry political advertisements that have been pre-approved by the commission, and has called for the creation of mechanisms that enable it to rapidly take-down objectionable political content, according to a report obtained by HuffPost India under the Right to Information Act.
The ECI has also pushed for greater transparency to reveal who precisely is paying for online political advertisements and has called for an end to all paid political content 48 hours before polling dates. These recommendations by an ECI panel require changes in law in order to become legally enforceable, which is unlikely to happen in the short period left before the elections.
However, in the weeks surrounding the submission of the panel’s report to the ECI on January 10th, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, three of the largest internet platforms in India, unilaterally announced a series of election transparency-related measures in India. Among these are measures such as verification of political advertisers’ credentials, and the creation of publicly accessible databases to disclose campaign spending on their platforms. But it remains to be seen whether smaller platforms such as ShareChat, which is increasingly gaining political relevance in India’s smaller towns and cities, will follow suit.
India’s upcoming parliamentary election will be its first since the world truly woke up to the full extent of social media’s abilities to interfere with electoral processes. In order to deliver on its mandate of conducting a free and fair election in a political environment rife with platform-powered hate-mongering and misinformation, the ECI constituted a panel in February 2018 to re-examine the regulations that govern political advertising.
The panel’s mandate was restricted to the provisions of Section 126 of the Representation of People Act, which empowers the ECI to restrict political campaigning in the 48-hour period immediately preceding polling. However, some of its recommendations—such as the one related to pre-screening of ads—are more far-reaching and apply to political advertising throughout the election period.
The Section 126 rules, which were last updated in 1996, currently contain restrictions against election-related public meetings and broadcast messages in the 48-hour pre-poll period. If the panel’s recommendations are implemented, their purview will expand to include print and electronic media.
The panel’s report to the ECI recommended that print and social media platforms only carry political advertisements that have been pre-approved by the ECI’s Media Certification and Monitoring (MCM) Committees. It also mandates the creation of “special grievance redressal channels” during the election period that will “interface with and take expeditious action upon receipt of an order” from the ECI. During the 48-hour pre-poll period, content takedown requests from the EC must be dealt with “within a maximum period of 3 hours.”
The panel’s deliberations appear to have been restricted to political advertising. User-generated content will continue to remain unrestricted, even if it is political in nature.
“If I as an individual put out a post, saying that everyone should vote for X party or Y party, but I don’t pay for it, and it’s not an ad, that is where it becomes complicated,” says Sarvjeet Singh, Executive Director at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi. “Because while that might be me promoting one party, it’s also part of my free speech.” This is likely to be a potential source for concern as political parties have exploited the free-speech protections granted to ordinary citizens to turn social media platforms into campaign juggernauts.
In coming up with its recommendations, the panel consulted major political parties from across the country, industry bodies such as the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasters Association, and the Internet and Mobile Association of India. While the report mentions that it also held meetings with representatives of intermediaries such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter, and YouTube, only submissions made by Facebook have been included in the report.
“Given that there are only two or three months left for the elections to begin, everyone is coming up with kneejerk reactions.”
It quotes Snehashish Ghosh, Associate Manager of Public Policy at Facebook, as saying that the company has 7,500 people tasked with reviewing objectionable content and that this number could be augmented during the election period if the need arises. Facebook’s submission further states that while content is generally reviewed according to its own community standards, “action will be with regard to violation of the law” for content flagged by the EC.
The committee has also recommended that online platforms must maintain “a repository of political advertisements with information such as the sponsor, expenditure, and targeted reach of such content in an aggregated manner.”
In addition, political parties will be required to upload their advertisements on their websites and the EC’s MCM committees will also maintain a parallel database of political advertising.
The IAMAI, whose submissions to the panel with regard to online platforms seem to have been adopted as recommendations almost word-to-word, is likely to be tasked with setting up a monitoring committee to “periodically monitor the cases of violation and promptness of the action taken by the Intermediaries.”
While the panel made references to the broader issues of misinformation and micro-targeting using personal information, no concrete measures have been suggested to tackle either. The only expectation towards the platforms with respect to these issues is “reasonable effort” in countering their impact on elections.
Singh argues that the ECI does not have the capacity to deal with questions of political misinfomation. “That is not something that the Election Commission as a body can control,” he says. “All the EC can do is ensure that the process is as transparent and as open as possible so that if someone is paying for political ads, you have a list, you know who is paying for it, and in that 48 hour period before the polls, when you don’t want people to be influenced, they can make sure there is no targeting on social media.”
In his opinion, the fight against dodgy political advertising, like the larger issue of misinformation, is a long-term fight that is unlikely to see too many immediate wins. “Given that there are only two or three months left for the elections to begin, everyone is coming up with kneejerk reactions. I think it will be a longer process. I think we will be able to curb some political advertising that’s not legally okay, similarly with misinformation, but tackling the larger issue is a much longer process.”