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.

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