The Election Commission (EC) released the dates for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on the 10th of March, and with this announcement, India has officially entered the home stretch of the 2019 elections. With the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) now in effect, the political parties are bound by certain restrictions in terms of advertising and campaigning. MCC’s have been in effect since 1968 which serve as a binding model code based upon a consensus between all political parties to ensure ethical behavior during elections. Due to its consensual nature, MCC is not a statutory document and the violation of many of its provisions does not attract punitive action. The MCC seeks to ensure free and fair elections and is enforced by the Election Commission. It has evolved with time to incorporate all aspects of political campaigning, with the current edition of the MCC also extending to social media posts and online advertising. This shows a paradigm shift in the mode of campaigning employed by many political parties; with the rise of social media activity in India, the online sphere has become a virtual battleground of political advertisement.
The regulations which govern other advertisements, such as print media and radio, will also be extended to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter. The forums have been contacted by the Elections Commission, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook have released their own codes of conduct to be followed at the time of elections. The increased scrutiny of social media platforms for political advertisement is a welcomed change, and comes at the heels of the Cambridge Analytica scandal which broke early last year, and is rumored to have has significant impacts on the US elections and the Brexit vote.
The new guidelines bring political advertisements on social media platforms under the MCC, similar to the provisions relating to newspaper and radio advertisements, parties are now required to disclose expenditure accounts for social media advertisement as well. These advertisements will also have to go through a mandated Pre-Certification procedure, and they will be monitored by the Media Certification and Monitoring Committees (MCMCs) placed at the district and state levels to which a social media expert will be added. The candidates are also required to submit details of their social media accounts (as applicable) at the time of filing nominations. The EC has also extended the norms applicable to social media advertising to include Voice and SMS messages propagated through phones.
The platforms have also agreed to the guidelines laid down in the MCC and agreed to take stringent actions against any content reported by designated officers of the EC. To this end, they have agreed to set up priority channels with the EC for quick response to complaints. The EC has also sought to extend the ban on political advertisement for 48 hours before the elections to social media, as mandated under section 128 of the Representation of People Act.
The new guidelines have been lauded and criticized by many. One of the chief complaints stems from the fact that private posts of individuals would not count as advertisements and would thus not be covered under these regulations. Parties and workers are still able to use their pages to upload posts supporting their candidacy which are exempt from the MCC. However, it would be difficult to bring personal posts under this ambit without violating the right to freedom of speech guaranteed under the constitution. Any discrepancies or hate speech propagated under these private posts would still be governed under their community guidelines and can be reported under the same. Additionally, depending upon the subject matter of the individual posts, they would also be punishable under the Hate Speech laws in India, such as those relating to promoting enmity between groups, assertions prejudicial to national integration, hurting religious sentiment etc. There is a comprehensive and robust legal framework which deals with Hate Speech in India and as such the EC should not be required to step in to govern a citizen’s private posts made in a personal capacity.
The effects of the guidelines can already be felt, as the EC has contacted Facebook, asking them to take down a controversial poster featuring members of the Armed forces, being used as part of a political campaign. The poster in question was uploaded by the social media account of O.P Sharma and has a picture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman on it, which is in direct contravention of and advisory issued by the commission in 2013, in which it had asked them to desist from using photographs of defence personnel or any events associated with them for political propaganda
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The 17th Lok Sabha elections also debuts the cVIGIL app, which is a mobile application created by the Election Commission to provide a reliable mechanism enabling citizens to transmit and track complaints relating to the breach of the MCC. In addition, the Voters helpline 1950, can also be used to register complaints for potential breeches of the MCC. With the upcoming election shaping up to be one of the most expensive elections to date, the EC is working on ensuring a free and fair election process without any voter coercion and fake news to skew the balance.