The social media platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) have for the first time worked out an election code, ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019,’ to help the Election Commission of India keep a check on the compliance with the rules by the candidates. The Election Commission had noted in the past elections that candidates made a very significant use of social media platforms like Twitter, Google, YouTube and Facebook.
Now, for the first time, all candidates will be required to give details of their social media accounts while filing their nomination papers for the election. All political advertisements on social media will need pre-certification. The social media companies have been asked to verify advertisements coming from political parties. All expenditure on campaigning ads on social media has to be included in the election expenditure account.
The Election Commission’s efforts to keep a check on the social media are laudable as elections could not be termed as clean and free and fair only if political parties and candidates manage to misuse social media platforms to advance their interests and damage those of their rivals. Moreover, a lot of advertising is shifting from the print media and the electronic media to the social media. Social media platforms provide a reach to tens of millions of people, far more than the print or electronic media can take an advertiser to. Companies wanting to sell their products are apportioning advertisement budgets for social media.
There are systems and agencies that gather a feedback on the impact of advertisements in the social media. Products are selling more as a result of advertising in the social media. Naturally political parties and politicians of both the ruling as well as opposition camps, national or regional, have started using the social media to reach out to large numbers. The advantage is they reach them instantly. It is good that the Election Commission would be forcing candidates to include expenditure on advertisements in social media in their statement on expenses submitted to the election authorities.
However, it might not be easy for the Election Commission to stop fake news, defamatory comments or inciting insinuations on the social media. If the Election Commission believes the social media platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India would help them make the election campaign entirely a “clean campaign” it might turn out to be a case of over-expectation.
We know from our experience that social media companies have constantly refused to appoint any ombudsman or editorial team to screen fake news, defamatory comments or inciting insinuations or misrepresentation of facts. Their standard defence has been that their platform is a free platform where everyone is at liberty to express one’s “views.” This is where social media differs from the print media and electronic media. Both the print media and the electronic media are commercial organizations, just as social media are, and have advertising sections, but they have an editorial section too that edits matter or visuals that are fake, defamatory or inciting violence.
The social media companies want to eat the cake and have it too. They are solely wedded to advertising, without bothering for the content on their platforms. Social media therefore is not responsible media but irresponsible media. The print media and electronic media too have freedom of expression as their reason for existence. But freedom of expression comes with restraint, as the Constitution of India and a number of rulings of the Supreme Court have laid down.
Social media has a greater power than the print media and electronic media. It spreads faster than the traditional media. It is convenient and gets news across to vast numbers. At the same time, if you look at the social media platforms, most of the comments are fake, unethical, defamatory, abusive and insinuating.
Social media would have been able to swallow the landscape of the print and electronic media if it had an editorial section to screen, filter and temper its content. It is worth noting that while the social media platforms and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) worked out a ‘Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019,’ they have not committed themselves to set up an editorial section for screening, filtering and tempering content. They have cleverly got the Election Commission to appoint officers who will hear complaints, if any, of bad content on social media platforms! If anyone complains to the officers, it does not hurt the social media companies. They would go on merrily harvesting advertising revenue without responsibility for content.