India's Election Commission Lays Down Last Minute Laws For Online Campaigning
BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, November 6 2013
India's Election Commission recently published a set of guidelines for the use of social media in political campaigns, requiring that candidates declare the amount of funds spent on social media campaigning and pre-certify their political advertisements, among other requirements. The new rules, sprung on political campaigners less than a month before the scheduled elections, have had mixed reception, with some saying that the rules do not go far enough.
The new guidelines, outlined and analyzed here by an Indian news analysis site, MediaNama, state that candidates must register all official social media accounts so that they can be authenticated, in order to prevent others from faking the politician's identity online. They must also submit their online campaigning expenditures and have all political advertisements, even those released on social media, pre-certified by the Election Commission. The guidelines also stipulate that public funds cannot be used to fund digital campaigns. Finally, candidates must abide by a “Model Code of Conduct” online, which forbids “any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic,” and other “corrupt practices,” like bribing voters and canvassing near polling stations.
Some have said that these rules do not go far enough. The guidelines specifically excludes content posted by people unaffiliated with candidates or political parties.
“The guidelines only regulate the social media accounts of politicians and their parties,” Sunil Abraham, Director of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, told Firstpost, an Indian news site. “It does not regulate social media content published by others. This basically means that the EC needs to develop sophisticated tools to detect astroturfing, sock puppetry, meat puppetry and other forms of manipulation of the networked public sphere. Without these tools it would not be possible to tell when politicians and political parties use proxies to circumvent the guidelines.”
An editorial in Firstpost expressed concern that the new guidelines will do nothing to curb online trolls:
However, it is the self-proclaimed ‘supporters’ of the various parties and a million fake accounts created by the likes of them who are the real threats on the virtual space. It is usually these people singling out critics of their parties and leaders, hounding them and encouraging others to abuse them too. However, these are the same the Election Commission seems to have no provisions against in their directive.
None of the parties have come out in the open and declared that they indeed have a social media cell. While they admit to having IT cells, no one them [sic] quite admit to having an expansive social media unit with professionals hired to run them. The general impressions is that party cadres and supporters chip in to run the various social media extensions of the party.
Hence, it will be next to impossible for the EC to clampdown on bought followers, fake profiles etc unless they conduct a thorough investigation into the social media practices of the political parties.
Finally, at least one politician, Congress MP Shanta Ram Naik, has expressed outright concern about the guidelines in their entirety. He points out that the rules have been laid out without reference to law.
“Government always makes rules in consultations with the Election Commission,” Naik wrote in a letter. “But Commission does not deem it fit to consult government or political parties in issuing instructions which are in the nature of substantive law. Such matters cannot be left to be regulated in the names of instructions.”
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