Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat has said that internet major Google and social media giants Twitter and Facebook have assured the Election Commission that they will not allow their platforms to be misused for anything which effects the purity of polls during campaign period.
Citing that it was tested during the Karnataka elections, Rawat said,
“Small pilot was there. That was the beginning. Now we will have a bigger pilot before Lok Sabha elections in these four states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram,” the CEC told PTI.
Assembly polls are due in the four states later this year.
Rawat said a committee under Senior Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha had called regional and local heads of Google, Facebook and Twitter and had asked them as to what they can do for ensuring purity of Indian elections such as avoiding adverse impact of fake news and targeted communication to voters.
“They have all committed that during campaign period, they will not allow anything which is adversely effecting level playing field be allowed on their platforms… during the last 48 hours before the close of poll, they have committed that nothing of elections will be allowed on their platforms,” he said.
The last 48 hours before the elections come to a close is called ‘silence period’ so that voter can calmly decide on as to whom to vote.
The companies have also assured the poll watchdog that political advertisements will be flagged, including the amount spent, so that expenditure can also be accounted for during campaign period, the Chief Election Commissioner said.
Google will establish a system that will allow it to share with the EC details about the expenditure incurred on its platforms.
The panel under Sinha was set up to explore possible changes in section 126 of Representation of the People Act, 1951 in view of the expansion and diversity of media platforms.
The section “prohibits displaying any election matter by means, inter alia, of television or similar apparatus, during the period of 48 hours before the hour fixed for conclusion of poll in a constituency”.
In July this year, Facebook has offered to deploy its fact-checking systems for all future elections in India including the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Sources also said the Facebook self-verification system would subject content that is circulated beyond a point to automatic fact-checking.
WhatsApp is one of the key platforms where disinformation is spreading in India, the study revealed.
“In India, there is a stronger culture around using WhatsApp—user-curated public and private groups are a common way to connect with friends, family, and the broader community,” Bradshaw said.
The popularity of the Facebook-owned instant messenger is why distorted campaigns breed on it, she said. With over 200 million active users, WhatsApp is the most widely-used messaging app in India.
The researchers even found instances wherein political campaigners in India hired public relations or consulting firms to spread online propaganda.
In the run-up to the upcoming 2019 election, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has reportedly set up thousands of WhatsApp groups to directly reach out to their electorate. Party president Amit Shah is apparently a member of each one of them in an attempt to stop the spread of fake news. However, during the 2014 elections, when social media first emerged as a pivotal campaigning tool for Indian political parties, the BJP was accused of birthing internet trolls and fake photo forwards.
Even during some state elections this year, WhatsApp reportedly housed rampant misinformation from multiple political actors.
The chatting app isn’t the only source of fake news in India, the study found.
On Twitter, the researchers discovered evidence of political parties using bots to boost their follower counts, or to retweet, like, or share content that supported their campaigns.
”Automated accounts allow you to reach more audiences, and if you can generate trends, you can generate truth,” Bradshaw said.
The recent Twitter purge of fake accounts, where prime minister Narendra Modi lost 300,000 followers and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi lost 17,000, speaks of how widespread bot activity is among India’s political candidates.