Indian ‘Online’ Elections Need Reform; Here is What EC Can Do

EC released a Voluntary Code of Ethics by social media platforms for 2019 polls, but here is what’s needed.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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Even as we approach the 2021 exit polls for five states, headlines covering the West Bengal elections raise a fundamental question: is protecting the health and safety of the people not an indispensable subset of the ideals of democracy?

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light some glaring issues in how democratic elections are conducted. Between February 2020 and February 2021, owing to COVID-19, at least 75 countries and territories worldwide decided to postpone national and regional elections. However, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, approximately 105 countries have held national or subnational elections.

Potential Scope for Misuse of Data

The apparently dire need to conduct ‘timely elections’ in order to ‘safeguard democracy’ — even during a global pandemic — has resulted in accelerated digitalisation of election campaigns. The usage of social media in today’s digital age transcends geographic boundaries, which is why almost every political party has an IT cell working overtime to make its presence felt. Although its use has been perceived as a boon — with respect to wider public outreach, reduced costs, and increased efficiency — online campaigning comes with its own limitations.

For instance, the Cambridge Analytica scandal specifically highlighted that an online campaign is data-centric, as understanding people’s preferences, habits, political behaviour or other traits allow advertisers to formulate ‘look-alike’ campaigns.

In India, the BJP used data to target individual voters and used it to their advantage in the 2019 general elections. Therefore, in the absence of a comprehensive data privacy law in India, political parties could misuse sensitive personal data leading to a potential infringement of right to privacy.

Online Election Campaigns in India — and EC’s Rules

The 2020 Bihar election was the first of its kind in India amidst the pandemic, and therefore, the Election Commission of India (EC) had a mammoth task at hand considering the number of people involved.

The EC had released guidelines to be followed for the conduct of elections during COVID-19 times. The said guidelines not only prescribed stringent measures to curtail the spread of the virus but also promote the use of social media and virtual rallies in place of large-scale political rallies, roadshows, etc. So, while the usage of social media is being promoted, the regulations on such platforms are not clear.

In fact, online campaigning of elections in India faces various obstacles in controlling the spread of unverified information, lack of access to internet and the absence of equitable social infrastructure with political parties.

The government did take some steps to overcome these challenges. To curb fake news dissemination online and other such practices, the EC had released a Voluntary Code of Ethics by the Social Media Platforms for the General Election 2019 (‘Voluntary Code’) to monitor and regulate the manner in which political parties use such platforms for online campaigning.

This was the first time that such a step was taken by the EC, however, no such corresponding provision has been incorporated in the Model Code of Conduct.

Further, on 25 February 2021, the government enacted the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 which serve to govern social media among other forms of digital media.

Although these rules have stirred controversy and its validity has been challenged in various courts, they have the potential to fill the lacuna in which online campaigning functions in India.

Drawbacks of Online Campaigning

Online campaigning will function in a vacuum until the EC makes requisite amendments to the Model Code of Conduct to regulate use of social media for this purpose.Due to this ambiguity, it is not only easy for the political parties to flout the Model Code of Conduct, but it is also extremely important for the EC to identify such violations.

Any content on social media leads to rapid dissemination thereby making it a very fragile tool for campaigning. One such example is the mushrooming of fake news and hate propaganda-mongers before and through election periods. Such misinformation can lead to manipulation of vulnerable individuals or groups in society by malicious actors and a potential threat of violence while disturbing the fabric of society.

Another drawback to online campaigning is lack of access to the internet and smartphones across the country.

A dearth of internet resources implies that much of the masses don’t have access through social media, which throws into question the effectiveness of an online campaign. Therefore, to realise the idea of reaching the masses through online campaigning is still a distant dream.

In addition, online campaigning does not give a level-playing ground to all the candidates as it requires a high level of proficiency to analyse the data and create targeted campaigns to convert a potentially favourable voter into a favourable one. Not every political party has such resources to achieve this motive.

While pre-defined monetary limits are prescribed to bridge gaps between political parties, there is no parallel in the world of online campaigns.

The Way Forward

In light of the above, efficient, equitable and fair online campaigning — though crucial for India in these times — seems like a faraway dream. Appropriate legislations concerning social media campaigning governed by an autonomous body coupled with novel and innovative ideas on conducting campaigns on internet platforms is an urgent need.

(Krithika Kataria is an Advocate, Bombay High Court; Gaurang Mansinghka is a final year student at Government Law College, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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