The cyber law series: Can India curb the trolls who ride on the coattails of politicians?

Firstpost will carry a series of six articles that examines the intersections (and frictions) between Indian cyber law and society.

By Asheeta Regidi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an app bearing his name earlier this week. It is one among many tools he uses to reach his younger constituents. It is a tack adopted by several of his colleagues in government – the railways minister and external affairs minister being the most prominent among them. The immediacy of social media and the ease with which its contents traverse platforms and devices renders it particularly attractive to political messaging. Needless to say, it also introduces several weaknesses in the platform, making it susceptible to abuse. Unfortunately, Indian laws governing cyber space, do not include laws specific to the use of social media. The existing social media laws are grievously inadequate in their ability to deal with such abuse.

Firstpost will carry a series of six articles that examines the intersections (and frictions) between Indian cyber law and society. These will cover right to privacy in the workplace, defamation and social media, the exact scope and meaning of standard “terms and conditions”, stalking and sexual harassment, and vulnerability of online financial transactions. The first in the series concerns itself with an issue of immediate interest – politics and social media.

The 2014 general elections saw the use of social media in election campaigning at strength and volume that the country hadn’t witnessed in the past: a cacophony of tweets, Facebook campaigns and blogs. And this wasn’t merely another campaigning tool, thrown into the mix because it was available and held currency with the youth; strategies were crafted around it.

In November that year, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) attributed its success in the Delhi elections to its social media campaign, and even thanked the BJP’s anti-Arvind Kejriwal campaign for its victory

However, the real danger isn’t the verbal skirmishing or false propaganda that parties exchange or broadcast. It arises from those trolls who claim allegiance to one party or the other – “bhakts (BJP), AAtards (AAP), Congis (Congress). There is simply no means to determine who these people are and indeed if they are real people at all.

The cyber law series: Can India curb the trolls who ride on the coattails of politicians?

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In 2013, the website Cobrapost claimed that a sting operation it conducted, titled Operation Blue Virus, had yielded evidence that suggested leading political parties in India had hired several IT firms to artificially boost their popularity and fan following, as well as to generate negative reputations of opponents. For instance, these IT firms may have generated a large scale negative response to an online comment by a rival politician, thus influencing the general public to react in the same way. 

The website stated that the method used included booth management, buying votes and rumour-mongering. The firms, Cobrapost claimed, would “use different IP addresses, offshore servers, proxy codes or wireless connections, disable the tracking device of a computer system and destroy the same when the job is over, to cover their tracks’. While the report remains unconfirmed, it reveals the possibilities of misuse by politicians for furthering their agendas.

The only existing social media laws for political parties are instructions issued by the Election Commission in 2013. These are grossly inadequate to deal with the grave possibilities of misuse of social media. The instructions extend the application of the Model Code of Conduct and other election campaigning laws to social media activity. The existing Model Code of Conduct, however, may not cover all aspects of all unlawful conduct on social media.

For example, the artificial creation of a negative reputation, as discussed above, is not covered under the code. Additionally, the instructions require parties to disclose their online account details, and include expenditures in online campaigning in their statements on campaigning expenditures. On the real problem, the issue of content posted by persons other than political parties and candidates, the instructions merely state that it is a ‘matter under consideration’.

The political parties themselves play no greater role in holding such persons accountable. BJP’s Social Media Policy, for example, simply states that it is not possible to verify or take responsibility for each and every supporter or member of the party, and merely encourages these supporters and members to follow the ‘Dos and Don’ts’ listed. The only guidance to its ‘Office Bearers’ is to be ‘model social citizens so that their passionate followers are influenced by example on appropriate Social Media conduct’.

The nature of cyberspace is such that holding a person accountable for social media misuse becomes an onerous undertaking. The existing cybercrime laws and other laws on political crimes, particularly the Model Code of Conduct, should be amended to include provisions specific to this. Holding political parties accountable for the manner in which their supporters behave online may help prevent social media misuse at the root. This will force parties to hold their members and supporters to a standard of conduct, and will prevent any tacit collusion with such activities. The use of social media to incite violence is not new, and if strict measures are not imposed, the situation is likely to balloon into an intractable giant.

The author is a lawyer with a specialisation in cyber laws and has co-authored books on the subject.

The next part of the series will examine right to privacy at the workplace.

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