Prior to 2014, barring a few political leaders who used social media to communicate with their supporters, the medium was yet to impress the community of political pundits. But the BJP was using social media as an integral part of its campaign, and the party enjoyed first-mover advantage in this new format of communication.
However, following the landslide victory registered by the BJP in 2014, other political parties too saw merit in the medium. All parties that are vying for a piece of power in 2019 have official handles on social media. Top leaders, including those who had been reluctant till now, like Mayawati, have taken the plunge in order to regularly interact with their followers, and political opponents. Political communication, including critical appointments of office bearers, lands first on social media. Social media, like any other medium that amplifies messaging, has the power to rise to the occasion and steer opinions in a particular direction.
Clearly, for the medium that is at par with electronic formats with respect to availability of information and participation from political newsmakers, it was only a matter of time before the Election Commission brought social media under the ambit of the Model Code of Conduct. India currently has 500 million internet users, 35 million active users on Twitter, 300 million on Facebook, and 71 million on Instagram. This indicates the significance of the medium and its ability to spread information and influence opinions.
For many of us, who had been asking for the move, it was only after the Election Commissioner read the code for social media that it dawned on us: the colossal scale of implementation challenges this announcement entailed.
Digital world has no boundaries
The world wide web has no physical boundaries. As information violates geographical boundaries, it is increasingly difficult to trace the point of origin of content. While elections will be held in India, content will be generated and shared across the globe. Those accounts that fall out of the jurisdiction of India will not be covered under the Model Code of Conduct. For example, if a global leader of another nation wishes luck to one of the contestants, does that tantamount to breach?
Digital world is timeless
Digital content is always available for reuse across platforms. Aged content, shared by a contestant, if circulated by the supporters of the leader, is still able to influence opinion. However, it would be inappropriate to penalise the leader for old content resurfacing just before the date of voting. For example, this particular tweet of the prime minister is in the context of 2014 elections.
While supporters are well within their right to share and spread the message before 2019 voting date, technically, the contestant cannot ‘originate’ such content a day before the voting day. So, is distribution of this tweet by the digital cadre not in violation of the content?
The 2019 general elections are scheduled to be held in seven phases. All constituencies are not governed by the code of conduct at the same time. As a result, leaders in various parts of the nation cannot be held liable for sharing content that has the potential to violate the code of a constituency that falls out of their own.
If a celebrity who hails from Uttar Pradesh and now based in Maharashtra posts her experiences during the on-going moratorium in UP, and the post gets widely shared by users located in the state of the election, is it possible for this to be counted as breach of code?
Independent supporters and volunteers
In the past five years, social media has given a platform to those citizens who otherwise did not have any channel to voice their opinions. Several of these citizens who offer sharp insights and facts also have very strong ideological or political alignments.
They campaign in their individual capacity through their social media accounts and pages/channels. A lot of them have materially significant following as well. Advertisements running on their pages, promoting a particular party, should not be monitored, because that may be encroachment of a citizen’s right to freedom of expression.
Social media platforms, true to their nature, have little to do with whether the account is being operated by a human being or just a robot. Technology provides opportunities to scale a particular task with little effort. This also leads to the menace behind fake accounts and fake facts. Without having a solution to dealing with fake news, it is imminent that countless accounts, nameless and faceless, will be in action.
Where is WhatsApp?
WhatsApp is a messaging application which allows multi-media content to be shared with more than one person across the globe. In the recent past, it has been known as the carrier of fake news and propaganda that can incite violence. The medium provides the user with unlimited access and reach through groups. With little control and visibility on the content that is being distributed, the regulator needs to get WhatsApp in its ambit through access to groups, while individual messages can remain encrypted.
The Election Commission has owned the responsibility to manage the social media ecosystem that extends beyond boundaries. Expectedly, it will be inundated with complaints and grievances related to social media that the regulator will need to address and close. Notwithstanding the challenges, most importantly, general elections 2019 will mark the beginning of a long, winding journey towards ensuring that social media is a place for responsible campaigning and opinion making by/of/for the citizens.
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