As general election dates have been announced and political parties are now busy in mudslinging, fake news has engulfed the entire spectrum of media in the country. Though, honouring government mandate and strong stance on fake news, tech giants like Google and social media behemoth like Facebook have already taken measures to contain fake news and are helping the Election Commission of India (ECI) in conducting a fair election, not much changes are being seen to root out the menace altogether, at least for now.
This time, the Election Commission has sought cooperation of the people and urged them to use the Commission's 'cVigil' app to report any violations of moral code of conduct including circulation of fake news. This is the first time when a social media expert has been included in the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) of the poll body, which will monitor both at state-level and district-level.
Authorities will be monitoring all forms of the media, including print, TV, radio, social media to check spread of any fake news and hate speech. For any individual violator, it will be reported at the district-level and for political parties, any violation would be reported at the state-level.
The general elections will begin on April 11 and will be held over seven phases, followed by counting of votes on May 23.
Fake news and rumours had already created havoc in India with many lives lost in mob lynching acts and now election on the horizon; it is becoming a more prominent problem.
Trushar Barot, Facebook India’s chief, had also accepted that he has never seen anything like this before, the scale of fake content circulating on one story such as Pulwama attack. Facebook has now its network of fact-checking partners in India.
Model code of conduct:
During this election, disinformation can be a powerful tool for all parties desperate to win seats at all costs. Though model code of conduct is in place since 12 March 2019, there is no dearth of false promises and accusations. As per ECI, the model code of conduct (MCC) will apply to political advertising and social media content being posted by political parties. It requires all candidates to disclose their social media accounts to the commission, and include all expenditure on their respective social media campaigns as part of official disclosure.
Experts say that the Election Commission will have a tough time to check circulation of fake news and hate speech during the upcoming general elections. The problem becomes intense as 900 million voters use social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and Instagram.
The ECI said that dedicated grievance officers should be appointed by social media firms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and ShareChat. These platforms have assured ECI that they will take prompt action against fake news and hate speech circulating on their platform. They have also committed to acting on any content reported by the EC, which violates election laws. The platforms will also verify all political advertisements coming from various political parties, with disclosures about their funding sources.
According to Subho Ray, president at Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), “Most of the tech and social media platforms have set up their response teams, which are well prepared to handle takedown requests from the EC.”
IAMAI is coordinating between various intermediaries and the EC.
He added: “It is a formidable task, but intermediaries are committed to rise to the occasion. Silence period is especially complicated since campaigns on intermediary platforms are not bound by geography”.
How fake news come out?
An expert said that misinformation does not happen due to a candidate’s posts or advertisements, but happens through third party pages, influencers, who may or may not be getting paid. Social media platform Facebook’s ad archive show that most of the political advertising on its platform happened through affiliate campaigns and fan pages commonly referred to as ‘unofficial PACs’ (political action committees).
Many social media propaganda happens through fake accounts and pages. And what is stunning this time is the sheer scale of election-related content that is circulating on social platforms. This is for the first time EC is going to monitor social media on this huge scale. Though the rules like pre-certification of ads are for political parties and leaders, we have no idea how EC will monitor individuals paying to promote their posts on social media.
Last chance for Facebook:
Digital experts also opine that this election might be Facebook’s last chance to prove its credibility in the market. If it succeeds in containing fake news here, it will be able to wash its injured image globally as well. Facebook has already set up a ‘war room’ to monitor all election content.
According to Shivnath Thukral, the director of public policy in India and South Asia for Facebook, “At the operations center in Delhi will coordinate with Facebook’s offices in Menlo Park, Dublin and Singapore in order to ensure round-the-clock monitoring of misinformation.”
The social media giant has the biggest responsibility as it is not one; it owns WhatsApp and Instagram also. The BJP and Congress have reportedly formed 50,000 WhatsApp groups that are part of their campaigning.
Print & TV Media not immune:
Section 126 of the Representation of People Act prohibits advertising and campaigning on TV and other electronic media during the silent period. Though BJP has favoured regulation of “fake” and “paid” news, but at the same time also opposed changes in rules to extend the 48-hour silent period ahead of elections to door-to-door campaigns and print media, while other parties did not oppose this.
BJP said: “Print media should not be included within ambit of section 126. Fake news should be stopped, and there should be measures to deal with ‘paid news’. Door-to-door campaigning should be exempt from purview of section 126.”
Last year, the Umesh Sinha Committee was constituted by the ECI to suggest changes in the Section 126 and other sections of the Representation of the People [RP] Act, 1951 in order to address the “challenges in the wake of expansion and diversity of media platforms”.
As per ECI Commissioner Sunil Arora, the implementation of Umesh Sinha Committee report, which recommended amendments to the Section 126, was pending in the law ministry.“Section 126, at the moment doesn’t apply to print media and social media... And for that a committee was appointed. That committee gave its report two-three months back and they have recommended certain things... That proposal has been sent to the ministry of law because it involves amendments in the rules,” he said.
As per recommendations of the committee, print, electronic media, even intermediaries, such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and Whtasapp should be brought within the purview of Section 126 to ensure voters are “not unduly influenced and are afforded a period of reflection to examine their political choice.”
The committee also said that during the silent period, there are “many indirect and direct methods adopted by candidates and political leaders, which may directly or indirectly influence the mind of the voters in favour or against some party/candidate”.