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Last Updated : Mar 12, 2019 12:00 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Comment | Code of conduct cannot put the Social Media genie in the bottle

Advertisements on social media need to be defined properly. Will promotions by Bollywood celebrities and social media influencers be classified as advertisements?

Sounak Mitra

The Election Commission of India (ECI), which announced the schedule for the 17th Lok Sabha elections on Sunday, March 10, has said that the model code of conduct and its rules on political advertisements will be applicable to social media as well.

With this, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Google, YouTube, Instagram, among others, will only be able to run political advertisements that are pre-certified, expenditure of those advertisements being shared with the ECI, abide by the “48-hour silence period” norms, like it happens in case of advertisements on print, television, radio and other mediums of communication. Both political parties and their candidates, who will have to furnish details of their social media accounts at filing nominations, will have to abide by the code of conduct.

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The whole point of bringing social media under the purview of ‘code of conduct’ is to keep a check on political propaganda, use of social media as a tool to spread misinformation or fake news that may potentially mislead voters, especially keeping in mind the involvement of consulting firms such as  Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly masterminded political machines, backed by social media and other tools, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Thus, it is obvious that the ECI will bring social media under scrutiny.

That happened despite that fact that the ECI had issued social media guidelines in 2013 before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014. Despite the guidelines, social media did play a “big role” in India’s election in 2014.

What’s interesting is that there is almost nothing new in the guidelines this time, and there’s a few things that the ECI has not clarified.

Most of the things posted and shared on social media are not classified as advertisements. Political parties and their contesting candidates will have multiple ways to use social media as an effective tool to reach voters with their propaganda without the so-called advertisements.

First, a ‘post’ or a ‘message’ or a ‘statement’ shared on social media is not classified as advertisement. This is a loophole political parties, contesting candidates, and party workers are going to use. These also work better because these are not classified as advertisements.

Second, who authenticates the social media account details furnished by contesting candidates? There is a simple answer to this. The ECI has asked most of the social media companies to actively engage with it for the elections. However, what happens if a contesting candidate opens a new account and uses that for promotions, or uses an existing account, the details of which has not been shared with the ECI.

Third, what happens to promoted trends, promoted posts and promoted accounts  which is another form of advertisements? Most possibly, the ECI will categorise them as advertisements, but there is no clarity as yet.

Fourth, one of the most important factor in the world of social media is influencers who have millions of followers and post statements for a fee. As pointed out in an earlier piece, political parties pay these social media influencers to spread propaganda. Besides, there are Bollywood celebrities who allegedly promote political parties across social media platforms for a fee. Will the ECI bring their accounts under scrutiny? If yes, how will these be identified?

Promotions by celebrities, influencers or even by political party workers or volunteers in any form are nothing but surrogate paid advertisements. Most of the times these tools are being used to spread fake news. Time reported in January on how the ruling BJP has been using its volunteers to spread fake news using WhatsApp.

By bringing social media under the scrutiny, the ECI is trying to control some of the issues that arise with the fast growth of social media. However, it’s clear that there’s a lot that the Election Commission of India has left unaddressed.

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First Published on Mar 12, 2019 12:00 pm
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