Can't 'self-censor' political ads, says Facebook even as Google, Twitter aim for greater transparency ahead of LS polls

In December, Facebook had said that "anyone who wants to run political ads in India will have to disclose their name and location", adding that the platform would provide more details about who had placed the ad.

The use of social media platforms has exponentially increased in India, and close on the heels of its merits of convenience and connectivity are the dangers of misinformation and fake news. Over the past few years, there have been increasing incidents of lynchings based on rumours circulated on social media, and internet is often suspended in potentially violent politically and socially sensitive situations.

According to an IndiaSpend analysis, between January 2017 and July 2018, at least 33 persons were killed and at least 99 injured in 69 reported cases.

Analysts have also often pointed out parallels between developments in the political arena and the likely social media machinery that drove them. The BJP's — Narendra Modi's — Lok Sabha election campaign in 2014 is studied as a case study of the use of media in general to create, build, and promote a politician as a brand. Of the party's win in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly elections later that year, a report by Livemint said, "The party replicated the strategy it used in the General Election earlier this year, keeping Modi at the centre of its campaign."

'Modi phenomenon'

 Cant self-censor political ads, says Facebook even as Google, Twitter aim for greater transparency ahead of LS polls

Represesentational image. Reuters

The report quoted Vinit Goenka, co-convener of BJP's national IT cell, as saying, "The election campaign of the BJP in Maharashtra and Haryana was identical to its election campaign for the Lok Sabha. The popularity of Modi has helped the party win the states." Ogilvy's Piyush Pandey illustrated how the ad agency turned the party's brief into a campaign: We recommended that we must lead with our biggest strength, Modi.

Political analysts explained the 'Modi phenomenon', in which "Brand Modi even trumped Brand BJP", with how he highlighted the stagnated economic growth, ever-increasing inflation, among other issues in his campaign speeches. Business Today quoted analyst Manisha Priyam as saying, "The impact of this relentless campaigning (was) felt across different age groups, geographies, and sections of society."

The report further said, "After the elections were announced, his (Modi's) marketing team bombarded voters with print, television and radio advertisements with the same themes. It reached voters through text messages and Modi's recorded voice seeking votes for himself. It also tapped into social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — Modi has around 45 million Twitter followers — to magnify the impact of the advertising and branding campaign.

Russia meddling in 2016 US elections

Globally, a case that has been at the centre of the debate against allowing social media a free reign in a nation's politics, is the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been progressively drawing in the net around US president Donald Trump's election campaign and subsequent win, with the arrests of several of his former aides during the campaign.

Politico explains how Russia might have launched a "massive" social media campaign to "sow discord". The report said, "The IRA (Internet Research Agency, a Russian 'troll farm') also started an operation that used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to influence the US voting public, mostly through thousands of fake "bot" accounts and misleading advertising, according to the Mueller indictment.

"For example, IRA trolls produced materials intended to promote pro-Trump and anti-Clinton hashtags on Twitter, including #TrumpTrain, #MAGA and #Hillary4Prison. The alleged trolls also encouraged minority groups either to not vote or to vote for a third-party candidate starting in the latter half of 2016."

2019 Lok Sabha election and social media

Closer to home, the Indian government has been cracking down on Whatsapp to negotiate a way to regulate its use in a bid to curb the worryingly frequent incidents of violence that were being stoked by rumours of kidnappers, or cattle traders in various parts of the country.

In August 2018, the popular messaging platform agreed to all the demands of the IT ministry to check fake news except adding a feature that could help trace the origin of a message. However, according to reports, executives of the company met with government officials in December to discuss allowing traceability, which is had resisted to continue its end-to-end encryption assurance.

Executives did not categorically agree or disagree with the demand of traceability, a report by The Economic Times said, adding that more such meetings were likley in the future.

In such a scenario, social media giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google have displayed vocal consciousness of the importance of transparency in political ads ahead of the crucial upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

In December, Facebook had said that "anyone who wants to run political ads in India will have to disclose their name and location", adding that the platform would provide more details about who had placed the ad. Quartz India reported, "Beginning early next year, all ads related to politics in India can only be run by authorised advertisers, and they will carry a disclaimer with information on who placed the ad. Facebook added that these ads would be recorded in its online searchable Ad Library, along with details on the budget behind them, and the demographics of who saw them."

Sarah Clark Schiff, Facebook's product manager, in a post titled 'Transparency in India' said "By authorising advertisers and bringing more transparency to ads, we can better defend against foreign interference in India’s elections."

However, on Monday, Facebook told the Bombay High Court that it could not "self-censor" political ads. A division bench of Chief Justice Naresh Patil and Justice Nitin Jamdar was hearing a PIL by lawyer Sagar Suryavanshi which sought a ban on political ads at least 48 hours before election day.

Facebook counsel Darius Khambatta told the bench that while his client was ready to remove any objectionable paid political content from its site, the direction from the same must come from the Election Commission of India (EC) or any such authority.

"We can't implement a system of self-censorship. However, if the EC, or other authorities flag an advertisement, we are ready to take it down immediately," Khambatta said, according to a PTI report.

"When you can put strict conditions in the UK and USA, why are you reluctant to do so in India?" the bench asked Facebook's counsel in response. It then directed Facebook to file an affidavit. The bench also asked the EC to explain on the next date what could be done at its end to regulate paid political content online. It also issued notices to Google India, Twitter, and YouTube, seeking their response to the PIL.

"Social media should be responsible. The issue is of importance as it concerns free and fair elections in the country," the bench was quoted as saying by The Times of India.

On the other hand, Twitter and Google announced 'Ad Transparency Centre' and a 'Political Ads Library' respectively, for India ahead of the elections. According to reports, the feature will enable users to see the identity of advertisers funding a political ad.

Colin Crowell, Twitters Global Vice-President–Public Policy, was quoted as The Hindu as saying, "One of the things which we will be implementing here in India is an Ads Transparency Centre where we will be providing users indicators on promoted tweets and political advertising such as it is a political advertisement and who paid for it.

"If you click on it, it will take you to a transparency dashboard which will give you additional information about the advertiser, including the tweets they are advertising and how much they are spending. We will be coordinating with the political candidates and the parties and the Election Commission to implement that," he said.

With inputs from agencies

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.