Netas keep election commission in dark

Netas keep election commission in dark

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Elections are largely fought on social media these days. But how much are candidates spending in the virtual world?

While Karnataka wrapped up bypolls to 15 Assembly constituencies in December, election authorities have found it a challenge to monitor candidates’ social media expenditure. In fact, monitoring it during bypolls proved more challenging than during Lok Sabha elections, according to highly placed sources in the office of Karnataka’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO).

One member in the CEO’s office recalled how they found it difficult to crack into closed groups, which had designated members from different countries, pushing propaganda against rival candidates. “The accounts pushing such material were from UAE, UK, US, Malaysia, in addition to local accounts. Cracking these groups to flag violations was a huge challenge. It’s an ocean.”

As per the Code of Conduct, all electronic content should be certified by the district media certification cell if it is by the candidate and if it is by the political party, the state media certification cell. However, these are limited to official accounts of candidates and parties. A lot of publicity and propaganda are carried out through third-party accounts, many operating from outside India.

Intense at local level

Requesting anonymity, a social media analyst collaborating with the Election Commission elaborated on the issue: “While the ECI had issued strict guidelines to social media platforms during Lok Sabha elections, monitoring the same during bypolls was difficult, as the platforms did not consider local elections with same seriousness. Also, during Lok Sabha polls, we had identified 800-900 accounts that were pushing promotional content. At the local level, it was more intense.”

In the bypolls, a candidate spent an average of Rs 5 lakh for social media alone, according to the analyst’s estimate. 

Feedback from firms

Many candidates used apps like TikTok and Helo, which are popular in rural areas. There was no way to monitor the content flow on these platforms, unless something was flagged for hate mongering, a senior official in the CEO’s office explained. “When it comes to Facebook and WhatsApp, the companies give us estimates of the expenditure incurred by a candidate, based on their analytics. With others, there is no way of knowing.” 

Sources in the CEO’s office added that an informal working group was compiling a set of recommendations to tackle the issue, which would be formally sent to the ECI soon.

Additional Chief Electoral Officer Ajay Nagabhushan M N said during every election, the Commission kept track of advertisements on social media by individuals, calculating the expenditure and processing it as per norms.

On the part of candidates, Congress’ Shivajinagar MLA Rizwan Arshad said social media had become significant in elections. “The more it becomes important, the bigger the budget. If you take the help of professional companies for these campaigns, it comes at a big cost,” he said. 

Tourism Minister C T Ravi added that while social media influence on a voter in an urban area was more than 60%, the same in rural areas was not more than 30%. However, it was not cost-intensive, he felt. “All the creatives for social media included, it will not cost more than Rs 2 lakh for an MLA candidate.”

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