Fast-growing medium & politicos response

Fast-growing medium & politicos response

The Internet has amplified the shrill theatrics that mark the Indian elections. Undoubtedly, social media has increased awareness levels and galvanised citizens to contribute to the political discourse.

Owing to this heightened sense of public scrutiny, our politicians have been forced to remain consistent and accountable. Meanwhile, candidates themselves seem to be deploying a string of creative social media tactics to ensnare the voter.

The reach and relevance of the Internet in India is steadily growing: the Internet users have grown from two million in 2000 to about 205 million in 2013.  By the close of next year, we should see India’s Internet user-base grow to about 300 million. Interestingly, this is also expected to coincide with India becoming No. 1 in social media usage, with upwards of 150 million users. By 2020, our country is projected to have half a billion Internet users.

Currently, India is adding four million Internet users every month and almost all of them are accessing the web through mobile devices. At Google India, an effort is underway to create an ecosystem of affordable Android devices. A parallel endeavour aims at proliferating local language applications and building a deep repository of rich native content. The true power of the Internet will manifest with the next wave of users: They will be non-English speaking, vernacular and arrive from India’s hinterlands. And they will want their voices heard in their language.

Interestingly, vernacular websites are growing at 56 per cent year-on-year while English sites are growing at a mere 11 per cent year-on-year.

At a recent FICCI panel discussion in Mumbai, one participant felt it would take some time for the social media-cherub to lose its “baby fat” and mature. She felt that that there was a lot of clutter and cacaphony, which made it difficult to view the medium as a credible election barometer. But it is precisely this disruption in traditional modes of communication between the ruling-elite and an exasperated-citizenry which gives social media legitimacy, making it a powerful forum of democratic engagement.   The dialogue is non-linear, fluid and spontaneous, forcing the politician to be responsive and alive to the real issues out there. Of course, the political representative will also have to find ways to deflect banalities and barbs which fly thick and fast.

A few months ago, Google India commissioned a survey to understand the impact of the Internet on the forthcoming elections. The survey which was conducted across a large swathe of urban India, threw some interesting findings: nearly 37 per cent of the registered urban voters are online, 45 per cent of the voters wanted to see more candidate and constituency-related information online and candidates on the Internet were considered to be more progressive and transparent.  The survey also indicated that an increasing number of citizens wanted to ‘dialogue’ with politicians across various social media.

Curiously, a majority (two-thirds) of the registered voters surveyed did not believe in sharing their political views online. This can perhaps be attributed to the rather unimaginative provisions in the Information Technology Act. The infamous Section 66 (A) can put a social media enthusiast behind bars for three years, if his comments are “grossly offensive, menacing, cause annoyance or spread hatred”. Obviously, the interpretation is entirely subjective and an overzealous law enforcement agency could embark on a series of misadventures.

Social media platforms seem equally vulnerable: intermediary liability protections for service providers are at best flimsy. The IT Ministry Rules of April 2011 outlining ‘due diligence’ obligations of intermediaries are excessively prescriptive and rigid. This has undermined confidence and led to a quantum increase in legal claims and litigation targeting Internet firms.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has released its own set of guidelines on social media in elections. Apart from stipulating that no political advertisement should be displayed on the Internet without ‘pre-certification’, it also calls for social media sites to proactively monitor and take down content that is “unlawful or malicious or violative” of the Model Code of Conduct.

While editorial discretion may be possible in traditional media formats, how does one self regulate a social media platform like say YouTube, where 100 hours of user-generated content is uploaded every minute!  However, the Internet firms seek to continuously educate their users on posting legal content and on being notified of finding genuine violation of their ‘Terms of Service,’ instantly take remedial measures.

Lawful ‘take down’ requests are never disregarded.There is a need for India’s policy makers to comprehend the nature of this vibrant medium and through a consultative process, involving industry and the civil society, evolve a light touch mechanism to manage the Internet. The Internet’s ability to spawn innovation and entrepreneurship is a tale that has been recounted multiple times.That should be a story for another momentous day...

(The writer is Country Manager-Public Policy, Google India)