Indian Elections and Social Media

India is a growing Internet market with only 29.5% of the population connected to the information superhighway. It is already world’s second largest online market. Unprecedented growth in mobile Internet with world’s cheapest mobile data-rates is currently the biggest growth driver.

Political parties have realized importance of social media better than any Indian corporate. Slogans have turned into hashtags and social media ads are taking over print ads. Social media ads played a great role in the last two general elections to Lok Sabha. It is extremely important for the Election Commission to examine the content of such ads and ensuring accountability of political parties for the expenditure that goes into such online campaigns.

A Timeline of Political Ads Censorship in India

  • 1999 : ECI bans all political ads on electronic media prior to elections.
  • 1999 : In Gemini Television Ltd. and others Vs Election Commission of India, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ruled the ECI ban to be unconstitutional, contrasting provisions of freedom of speech under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India. The court also declared the ban to be contrary to the provisions of the RP Act, 1951.
  • 2004 : In Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Vs. M/s. Gemini TV Pvt. Ltd. and others, the Supreme Court mandated all political advertising to be pre-certified by the ECI before broadcast.
  • 2012 : ECI orders formation of MCMC Committee formed for pre-certification of political ads.
  • 2013 : ECI issued guidelines on social media usage during election campaigning.
  • 2014 : ECI in “Compendium of Instructions on Paid News and Related Matters“ states that its earlier order No. 509/75/2004/JS-1/4572 following the SC order of 2004 shall also apply to social media mutatis mutanids.
  • 2019 : Google requires pre-certification of political ads. Facebook starts labeling ads with “published by” and “paid for” disclaimers.
  • 2019 : Facebook and Instagram offer searchable archive of political ads.

How much political parties spent on social media ads in elections 2019?

Credits: Boom

MCMC and political ads on social media

The three-level Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) which is organized in national, state and district levels. This committee has an “Intermediary Expert / Social Media Expert”; Here intermediary is what is defined in section 2 (1) [w] of the IT Act, 2000, which means an expert on search engines, web hosting etc.

The committee has access to publicly available spending data. It also has power to remove ads and content which it finds in violation of regulations. District level committees can play greater role if it is provided with more man power and resources.

Challenges in Regulating Social Media Ads

  • Political parties have found a way around transparency policies of large social media platforms by creating their own platforms. A fully functional social network owned by a political party is where we are heading to.
  • How to associate ads run for star-campaigners to individual candidates for expenditure calculation is important challenge as Indian electoral is shifting towards presidential style where local candidates do not matter.
  • Surprisingly low number of political ads on Twitter is an indicator to the fact that political ads on Twitter are not run using the standard ad platform but using an army of paid third parties which operate ghost accounts. Meaning, that political campaigns do not use ads but regular tweets. Getting influencers to retweet your tweets or engaging them in other ways is also seen.
  • Facebook’s searchable archive is a good step forward but here, the challenge for the regulators is what to search for! Weekly data releases also bear the same question! Political advertisers may find ways to escape regulator’s eyes using different names and content choices. How good Facebook is at classifying political ads from non-political ones is another question.
  • WhatsApp which is the most preferred way of social interactions in India provides no public information about groups run by political entities or messages created by them.

India needs a balanced regulatory framework for online political advertising which does not engage in excessive censorship and makes parties more accountable. Opaque services such as WhatsApp can be asked to share metadata of the messages and IT companies can be hired to account expenditure for campaigns run on such platforms. Clear rules should be laid down to bifurcate party spending from candidate spending. Voters should be educated about tools available to fight misinformation.

Disclaimer : The author served as social media expert for ECI - Kutch. Views are personal.

Reclaiming Your Privacy on Android

A major threat to your privacy emanates from your smart phone. These devices have become central medium of social interaction for everyone. Android is the only open source platform among the popular smart phone operating systems. But even with Android your privacy is under attack as large corporations have figured out that data is the new oil. Android privacy threats, for the scope of this article, are of three kinds: emanating from the device itself, emanating from third-party apps, emanating from your carrier. In this article I try to explain how to counter these three categories of threats to an extent where you can still use your phone, you don’t need any technical knowledge and you don’t pay anything. Privacy threats from the device itself: A new device may contain pre-loaded apps and services from carrier or from the manufacturer. Such apps are referred to as bloatware. These preloaded apps have a potential to share your data with your carrier or manufacturer. Solution: You should simply disable all such apps. Privacy threats from third-party apps: Majority of third-party apps are not open source which means you don’t know what these apps actually do with your phone. YouTube, Instagram, PayTM are all examples of such apps. In fact majority of apps sold on Google Play Store are proprietary in nature. Solution: Use only open source apps from F-Droid or other providers. Stop using Play Store, only first few days would be painful, you will slowly discover the beauty of being free from proprietary software. Using F-Droid for example you replace YouTube with NewPipe which is way better than official YouTube app in terms of functionality. Now, there are apps which you simply cannot do without e.g. Facebook, Instagram etc. Such apps can be replaced with their web version using WebApps. Privacy threats from carrier: Everything you do on Internet using your phone is recorded by your carrier. All data traffic from your phone has to go through carrier’s servers. Carriers maintain logs of all websites you visit, every video you play and sometimes even your passwords can be stored. There are definite laws in India as to what can and what cannot be logged by carriers! In short, they have got you! Solution: Use an anonymous VPN which doesn’t keep a log. With VPN in place, carrier cannot see your data or requests, i.e. now carrier doesn’t know which website you visit or how long do you stay there. Free VPNs such as can be used. If you have questions, please feel free to comment below.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Values This recent tweet by Facebook’s security chief Alex Stamos stimulated my thinking about literature reading of Silicon Valley executives and importance of humanities education to the tech students. Stamos argues here that his company should not become “Ministry of Truth” (the propaganda machine in Orwell’s 1984) by running algorithms on deciding what is truth and what is propaganda or fake news. An analogy from Orwellian classic helped Stamos explain a complex evil scenario in simple terms. But is the role of cultural literacy limited to simplifying otherwise complex scenarios? No, if culture is defined by the values of its practitioners, I think it cannot be separated from anything they create. We create Artificial Intelligence. An algorithm cannot be neutral when it is designed by biased humans. An undiscriminating AI model trained by discriminating expert is improbable. We need to find ways to pass our values to what we are set to create. Fortunately, tech leaders do understand this. Emma Williams is a general manager at Microsoft whose area is Anglo-Saxon literature. Her role is to ensure that Cortana’s personality is calm and sober. Cortana is Microsoft’s premiere chat AI. It is evident that identifying role of human values in technology has never been more important than now. In Cortana’s case, for example, who would want to chat with a short tempered AI? [caption id=”attachment_202” align=”alignnone” width=”436”] Satya Nadella Quotes Ghalib at a Presentation in New Delhi[/caption] “Hazaaron khwaishein aisi, ke har khwaish pe dum nikle. Bohat nikle mere armaan, fir bhi kam nikle,” people were surprised when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella quoted great Rekhta poet Ghalib during a presentation in New Delhi last year. ‘Yet another geek into poetry’ one may wonder. But it perfectly suites CEO of a tech giant whose products aspire to be as good as human in some ways. If poetry can ease complexity of affairs by creatively deploying words why shouldn’t robots use them? Also, ill-informed reading in history undermines innovations and experiments in social and political thoughts. Which I think is a great cause of concern for tech students. For example, civil disobedience as an idea may not occupy any place in the mind of an engineer as a revolutionary approach towards fighting oppression. It is only hypocrisy talking about singularity and at the same time denying human culture and values any place in there. If future is what we build today, we should build it good and not evil. In India universities are finally moving towards offering more diverse learning experience to the students where an engineering student can study Shakespeare. Though the progress is very slow the outcomes should be positive with CBCS or choice based credit system. References:

  1. Facebook Stumbles With Early Effort to Stamp Out Fake News, Sarah Frier, Bloomberg
  2. The Bing Search Experience: A Practice In Italian Renaissance Art & User Perspective, Amy Gesenhues, Search Engine Land
  3. Yes, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella can quote Mirza Ghalib, The Indian Express
  4. Choice based credit system: the path ahea, M.S. Bhat, The Hindu

Flea Markets : Anonymous and Virtual

Flea markets are cool! Sunday’s visit to a flea market in Ahmedabad awed me with unexpected variety of products. What excited me more was the experience of moving in the streets checking out stalls one-by-one. Holding an unknown product in my hands, learning how it works by talking to the vendor, discussing it with my shopping partner, weighing it, negotiating on prices, asking other shoppers how much did a product cost them, these interactions built my shopping experience there. The experience was significantly different from today’s online stores (and even brick-and-mortar shops or supermarkets). No one knew me there, I did not sign-up, no one asked for my credit card number, it was a complete one-off relationship that made my experience pleasant. Privacy is a fundamental right and subject of heated discussions across the world.

Missing Exploratory Shopping Experience: E-commerce fails to deliver an exploratory shopping experience where a customer does not know what is she looking for. Online stores are too organized where products are arranged in categories and sub-categories. Deals occasionally provide an exploration opportunity but that is limited to items which are discounted. But such an experience can be designed with e-commerce websites, technically, may be not economically. Perhaps excessive regulatory control and trust-building with customer drove these businesses to focus on written attributes of products which are verifiable in the form of a contract. For example, describing a product as “brand-new and unused” rather than showing it to be so. Perhaps technology is a bigger driver, web pages over which this content is delivered have never been more friendly to anything but text.

Anonymous Virtual Flea Markets: A marketplace where anonymous sellers can come and sell almost anything is not a dream any more. There is a galaxy of marketplaces on the dark web. Cryptocurrencies are gaining ground. “Why can’t we use Mixed Reality (MR) technologies to build such markets?” is the central question. I think we can. A number mixed reality headsets are already in market from Oculus Rift to Microsoft HoloLens. There are shopping cart applications such as this that are designed for virtual reality. An independent, community backed, anonymous, mixed reality flea markets software effort is what we need.

Most Inspiring Satya Nadella Quotes

Satya Nadella talks about culture, empathy, philosophy and trust apart from technology in his Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone. Here are the six most powerful thoughts from the book that inspired me and will surely help you stay grounded. Spanning nine chapters with a foreword by none other than Bill Gates the book is worth reading for everyone in and even outside the technology industry.


Any advice that advocates passivity in the face of bias is wrong.


Success can cause people to unlearn the habits that made them successful in the first place.


Leadership means making choices and rallying the team around these choices.

Valuing Differences:

We need not just to value differences but to actively seek them out, invite them in.


When I learn about a shortcoming it is a thrilling moment. The person who points out has given me the gift of insight.


For anything great to happen - great software, innovative hardware, or even a sustainable institution - there needs to be a one great mind or a set of agreeing minds.

Share quotes that inspired you from your favourite books in the comments section.