The Election Commission has to deal with a new challenge in the conduct of Lok Sabha elections this time. It is the management of social media, which is likely to play an unprecedented role in the run-up to the elections. It had a role in the 2014 elections also, and the BJP had exploited it better than other parties. The footprint, range and size of social media have multiplied many times since then. It has access to many millions of people and is a much larger campaign field that the conventional electoral arena. The commission has realised this and has announced its intention to deal with the challenge. It has said that the model of conduct and the political advertisement rules would apply to social media also. All social media platforms have agreed to accept the norms. At a meeting with the Election Commission on Tuesday, social media sites have also promised to evolve a code of ethics for the industry.
The important question is whether the commission can do what it has promised and even if it does whether that will be enough. The problem arises from the nature of social media and the innumerable comments and postings and the enormous amounts of data and information that it throws up every hour every day. They are disseminated by countless individuals and groups in a country with an internet base of about 500 million people. That shows how big the task of monitoring them is. All parties have dedicated and active social media groups. While monitoring is tough enough, taking action against offenders is even more difficult, because of the problems and procedure involved in identifying them. Many of the issues that come up in social media are linked with freedom of expression. That also makes it difficult to sort them out. Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa has said that some of these problems have arisen from the absence of a law governing social media and elections.
Social media is known to perpetuate and magnify existing biases and create new ones. During periods like election campaigns deliberate efforts are made to move media narratives in particular directions. Fake news is created and, as is the case with currency, fake news tends to drive real news out of circulation. Social media experts will be inducted into the Election Commission’s district-level and state-level certification and monitoring committees, but it is clear that the commission does not have the wherewithal to spot and deal with every offence or abuse. Parties and candidates get their cyber warriors and troll armies to do their dirty job. How will the commission counter this?