Campaigning in the era of social media: Should EC update its code of conduct for the virtual world?

Elections to the 227-member Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation were completed successfully on Tuesday. Indeed, a jump of nearly 10 percent in voter turnout from a measly 46 percent in the 2012 polls does indicate that the efforts of the Election Commission to encourage higher voter participation has been fairly successful.

But while we must celebrate democracy, it is also imperative to highlight the lacunae in India's electoral system.

The Election Commission has made it clear that official campaigning ends 48 hours before polling closes. Every political party follows the rule fearing violation of the model code of conduct. However, while the code of conduct by and large works well in the real world, it is in the virtual world where the code seems to have gone for a toss.

An October 2013 notification by the Election Commission addresses the issue of social media campaigns by political parties. While clarifying on the applicability of the model code of conduct on social media, the notification says, "The provisions of model code of conduct and related instructions of the Commission issued from time to time shall also apply to the content being posted on the internet, including social media websites, by candidates and political parties."

In the era of "instant updates", a simple tweet/retweet or a Facebook post can be the easiest way to appeal for a particular party.

Take for example of the Twitter handle of the Mumbai Congress. It retweeted a tweet by Jignesh Sagar, who is a social media coordinator affiliated to the Congress party. In the tweet, Sagar proudly flaunts his inked finger and writes that the Congress will sweep the BMC. While it is his right to express his opinion, it is also problematic as his tweet seem to be openly in support of his parent party.

Another example is that of a video posted by the same handle which features Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam. In the video, which was posted on Monday, Nirupam urges voters to vote out the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance from power.

The Mumbai Congress has done the same on Facebook. Promising to fulfil its poll agenda a day after the official campaigning was over.

The Mumbai chapter of the BJP, on the other hand, retweeted North Mumbai MP Gopal Shetty's tweet urging voters to vote for BJP. The catch in this case is that Shetty's message was retweeted on Monday.

The larger national picture is not too different. Social media has helped parties to reach out to the public even without holding a public rally. The Nirupam video is a good example of it. Through Facebook's live feature, anybody can watch public rallies sitting at home. This feature can be problematic when one involves the code of conduct. Take this for example: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Fatehpur on Sunday. That same day, 69 seats went to polls in the third phase. Addressing a rally in Fatehpur, Modi as usual trained his guns at the SP-Congress alliance and the BSP. In this case, even if the BJP has stopped campaigning in the areas going to polls in the third phase, Modi is indirectly also addressing voters in these areas through the live video. Both parties have also fervently appealed to cast their vote in their favour on the very day of the poll.

While the 2017 notification states that pictures, videos and updates posted in blog/self account will not be considered political advertisement, and hence do not need the Election Commission's permission before posting them, the dynamics of social media puts the code of conduct in trouble. Witnessing the surge in online political campaigns, the commission has now made it mandatory for parties and candidates to disclose details about their social media pages and the expenditure that will be incurred on online promotion. The commission has created Media Certification and Media Monitoring Committees (MCMC) in each district which will keep track of the records.

This is a welcome move and must be appreciated as it can bring more transparency into the electoral system. The Election Commission's 2013 notification classifies social media as electronic media. The classification has been made under a 2004 Supreme Court order which directed all state and national parties to pre-certify all political advertisement with the commission. However, clubbing social media with television does not seem to be good idea. Television provides audience with only one-way communication. The "idiot box" is stationary, so if one needs updates on the go, it would be social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. These sites provide the audience with two way communication. They also have the power to proliferate the content through sharing, retweeting and forwarding messages.

The online world provides for a more democratic space for the audience to engage with the content that has been shared. The model code of conduct with respect to social media is still unclear about the content posted by people other than candidates and parties. So does this mean, this tweet by MNS General Secretary Shalini Thackeray won't be under the scanner as it was tweeted on the day of the polling?  This is despite the fact that she is a high-ranked party official who can potentially influence voters.

The issue is complicated by the presence of pages which are not directly affiliated to the parent party but nevertheless act as their mouthpiece. These pages might take advantage of the grey areas in the law and help spread the message of their parent parties. So a situation may arise where the parent party might be effectively following the code of conduct, but its fan pages might indulge in activities which may be in the grey.

However, there is a catch too. If the EC excessively gags the online world in the name of model code of conduct, it goes against the principle of Freedom of Speech and Expression.

In 2016, around 10.3 percent of the total population was active on social media. That is about 130 million of the Indian population and rising. Keeping this and its potential to influence young voters in mind, the Election Commission must consider the modalities that social media provide to the political parties and look to curb any potential future breach of the poll code.

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Updated Date: Sep 10, 2017 12:11:33 IST

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