Digital India goes to poll in April but key social media challenges are yet to be addressed

Jayadevan PK March 11, 2019

Pankaj Gupta and Ankit Lal, functionaries of the Aam Aadmi Party, were called in for a meeting by the election commission ahead of the polls in Delhi in 2013. The commission had two questions: how can social media posts be controlled and how can money spent on these campaigns be tracked, Lal recalls in his book India Social.

It is 2019.  Another election — this time, the general election — is upon us. The stakes are much higher, after all, India is the world’s largest democracy and over 90 crore citizens are to vote members to 543 parliament seats. The party or coalition with more than 272 seats will form the government.

Some questions from 2013 have been answered, thanks to the spotlight put on the role of social media in influencing elections around the world. India’s election watchdog, social media companies and a parliamentary committee have tried to rein in unlawful political advertising, fight fake news and track campaign expenditure on social media. But that may not be enough and new problems are being overlooked.

“It’s good that we’re talking about the basics. But we haven’t even started to think about the kind of problems that exist. We are just talking at a very superficial level right now,” says Lal, who now runs a social media agency of his own and also manages campaigns for the Aam Aadmi Party.

Also see: How social media wins elections

On Sunday, before announcing the dates for the upcoming elections, Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora addressed some of the problems. The media monitoring and certification committee, which is tasked with certifying advertisements before they are published, will now have a social media expert as well. Candidates now have to furnish details of their social media accounts to the commission. All political advertisements on social media will require pre-certification. Campaign expenses on social media have to be included in the election expenditure account. Provisions of the model code of conduct will now also apply to the content posted by candidates and parties on social media.

A committee set up by the Election Commission to examine Section 126 and other related sections of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to identify gaps in implementing the law submitted its report in January. The report, an extract of which has been reviewed by FactorDaily, recommends amendments to the act to include social media and intermediaries in its ambit.

“We have made a request to them (the Law and Justice ministry). We have mentioned that we would like it to be done before the elections,” Arora told FactorDaily on phone on Saturday morning. (The person in the photo illustration in the lead visual of this story is of Arora.)

The report has not been released in public yet. At the Sunday press conference, Arora spelt out some of the committee’s recommendations and other measures that platforms have agreed to.

Intermediaries like Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube have committed to making sure that political ads are pre-certified by the media monitoring committee, he said. “Some IT applications are also being thought of to further streamline the process,” Arora said at the press conference. The app is likely to be piloted in some states this year. The platforms have appointed dedicated grievance officers to address the spread of fake news and misinformation as per the committee’s recommendation. They have also committed to taking action on content that violates election laws pointed out by election commission representatives. A set of code of ethics is also being put in place by the IAMAI and the election commission. “It is in the works so I can’t give timelines,” Arora told FactorDaily.

Problems that are yet to be addressed include political content circulating on WhatsApp and platforms such as TikTok, the unauthorised use of citizen data for political gains, issue-based advertisements or covert advertising on social media that could influence votes, and paid trends on Twitter.

With over 250 million users, WhatsApp by far has the biggest reach in India. And the platform is known to be a source of fake news and misinformation. According to reports, the instant messenger was used in recent elections in Brazil to deliver an “onslaught of disinformation,” to Brazilian voters. Far right congressman Jair Bolsonaro’s win in Brazil was allegedly sealed with the help of disinformation spread on social media.

To tackle fake news, WhatsApp has taken a series of steps like slowing down the spread of fake news by reducing the number of forwards at a time and by undertaking awareness campaigns through newspaper ads and workshops. But WhatsApp groups are still rife with political content of questionable origins and credibility. Moreover, platforms like TikTok (over 52 million users) are conspicuously absent from the discourse around election integrity. According to information sourced by the Software Freedom Law Center using a Right to Information Act query, besides Facebook, Twitter and Google, no platforms were part of the committee.

List of members of the Umesh Sinha committee setup to look at Section 126 of Representation of the People Act, 1951. Source: RTI response to a query from SFLC.

Unauthorised use of citizen data for political gains is yet another area that hasn’t been addressed yet. The recent spat between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh is a prime example of data misuse. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu lashed out at Telangana Police for raiding a tech company that developed a service delivery app called Sevamitra. “The action of Telangana police as daylight robbery and the police raided the IT grid company and took away TDP data. This was done as per the direction of Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao,” Naidu reportedly said. As we had reported last year, data collected using apps such as the Namo app can be used to figure out the political inclination of users and in turn influence elections.

“Our personal data is being misused for political gains. So that’s what our campaign is against. We have been writing to the EC on various issues from the India centre,” says Ramseshan, an executive committee member of the Free Software Movement- Karnataka. (He doesn’t use a second name.) The organisation on Sunday kick-started a campaign called #Tech4Democracy to put a spotlight on data misuse and other issues relating to technology and elections.

While the election commission has included social media spends by candidates and parties as poll expenditure, and platforms have created mechanisms to track such advertisements, issue-based advertisements or what Lal calls “covert advertisements” haven’t been addressed. In the US, both Facebook and Twitter have policies (1, 2) for issue ads.

Issue-based ads are run in favour or against certain issues that have the potential to swing votes. In the US, for instance, nearly 20 issues including the topic abortion, civil rights, gun laws and immigration come under the issue ads policy and require advertisers to register as political advertisers before they can run the ads. Online advertisements purchased by the National Rifle Association in the US costing tens of thousands of dollars are an example of issue-based ads that ultimately end up favouring the Republican Party which is against strict gun control laws.

Issue based ads are yet to be looked at in the 2019 elections.

Facebook’s Director of Public Policy in India and South Asia, Shivnath Thukral said that the company has taken five key measures to ensure election integrity: it now runs the largest fact checking partner program in India. It has launched ad transparency tools, an ad library and weekly reports. It has started cracking down on bad actors who engage in coordinated behaviour that violate community standards. It has also taken down nearly 2 billion fake accounts with the help of machine learning algorithms and humans. It has launched civic engagement tools to engage voters.

This election, Facebook will set up a war room comprising of nearly 40 teams across the company in New Delhi to try and address some of the problems it has been made aware of. The social networking company is also setting up a “high priority escalation channel,” Thukral told FactorDaily.

But tracking issue-based ads is not one of them. In India, while Facebook has added policies to prevent content related to caste and voter suppression from being shared, it does not plan to enforce any issue based ad restrictions.

“This is my biggest headache. If tomorrow VHP starts a campaign on Ram Temple and runs issue-based ads, they will covertly promote BJP. How do you tackle that,” asks Lal. “For 2019 elections, issue-based ads which benefit political parties is not at all in the radar for the election commission, Facebook or Twitter.”