WITH elections to the two Lok Sabha and three Assembly seats in the state underway the social media monitoring cell of the Goa police has stepped up vigilance on social networking sites to curb any violation of the model code of conduct. The social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, Youtube, ShareChat and ByteDance have for long been misused by politicians and their paid and unpaid partisans to defame and run down their rivals by spreading rumours and posting derogatory remarks. Even in normal days such posts mar the scene in the social media. During election times ugly posts increase in number and must be stopped as they could influence voters against a party or candidate. Such posts constitute unfair practice. The Election Commission of India has brought the social media under the ambit of the model code of conduct and advised people not to misuse the platforms. However, misuse continues unabated.
The Internet and Mobile Association of India, representing social media companies, gave an assurance to the ECI they would enforce a voluntary ‘code of ethics’ to restrain fake and objectionable posts. The assurance by the Internet and Mobile Association of India notwithstanding, can all ugly, obnoxious and inciting posts on the social media platforms be filtered? Social media companies do not want to invest in a monitoring regime to curb any and each incendiary and derogatory post. Their main interest lies in increasing the number of users and visitors. It is sheer commercial logic. No wonder, millions of unscrupulous elements are still freely putting up posts that should have been filtered. It is apparent that the voluntary code of ethics the Internet and Mobile Association of India say they are enforcing is merely a cosmetic exercise. It should be clear to the ECI that it is the officials entrusted by them that can force the social media companies to impose stricter controls on the kinds of posts. Else fake news and vulgar, vituperative and abusive posts will continue to crowd the social media platforms.
The social media companies have to appoint more employees to monitor and screen posts. The ECI officials must act without bias and promptly against any post in violation of the model code of conduct. The authorities need to set up a mechanism to receive complaints from common citizens regarding misuse of social media. The identities of those bringing violations to their notice must be protected. The action must be quick in order to keep the electoral process fair. Prompt action and secrecy would drive more and more people to bring violations to the notice of the ECI authorities. Thousands of citizens would act as ECI eyes. This will help, because social media platforms thrive on freedom of expression; so there cannot be blanket ban on use of social media or pre-censorship of posts. Curbing freedom of speech on the social media would be counterproductive. And if only post-censorship can work, involvement of vigilant citizens would be crucial. While allowing full space for free expression of views, no room should be allowed to the elements that misuse the freedom to put up abusive, insulting and poison-filled posts and fake news.
The monitoring of social media should be an integral part of police functioning as it would help in collecting information on fomenting unrest, agitation and spreading rumours. The police could also gather information on whether any candidate or party was resorting to illegal practices like use of money and liquor to influence voters. Perhaps the ECI should have acted earlier. It was known that social media was being used to tarnish the image of politicians and political parties. The ECI waited till the enforcement of the code of conduct to curb the misuse and are now trying to restrain the social media which is a vast job. It is time the central government and the ECI build up pressures on the social media companies to set up a strong and comprehensive system to monitor posts on their sites and to take them down immediately if they do not conform to rules of fair comment and decency. Misuse of social media should not be allowed in normal times. Once that happens there would be no issues, elections or no elections.