Indian digital rights groups seek monitoring on online spending during elections

The groups demanded that the Election Commission prevent the misuse of social media and digital platforms, and make public information regarding election spending by political parties

April 10, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch

Ahead of the Indian elections, an array of civil society and digital rights groups have appealed to the Election Commission (EC) to monitor not only digital platforms like Google and Facebook but more importantly, the spending by political parties on online campaigning.

Last week, this joint platform — including Common Cause, Constitutional Conduct Group, Internet Freedom Foundation, Free Software Movement of India, Association for Democratic Reform and several former public servants, as well as former Chief Election Commissioners, N Gopalaswami and  SY Quraishi — released a statement and a Call For Action. These are addressed to the EC, as well as political parties, civil society, media, citizens and social media firms.

The organizations spoke about the overarching importance of controlling the online spending of political parties, and not just of candidates, during the election campaigns. India currently has spending limits for individual candidates during the election process but no such limits for political parties. In both the last election in 2014, as well as in the run-up to the current elections, the far-right wing Bharatiya Janata Party, which is currently in power, spent millions on social media. Independent right-wing groups have also engaged in massive misinformation and hate campaigns to polarize votes ahead of the elections. Amid increasing unemployment and widening inequality, the right-wing, including prime minister Narendra Modi, has indulged in divisive rhetoric, often targeting the minorities and marginalized sections, and political opponents.

The joint platform also asked the EC to make it mandatory for political parties to disclose official political party/individual handles on all major digital platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as lesser-known platforms such as WeChat, Sharechat, TikTok, etc.

The organizations noted the key role played by social media firms in elections throughout the world, as well as their ability to distort the process as evidenced by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the aftermath of the issue, Facebook made several announcements regarding steps to curb misuse of the platform. However, digital rights and pro-democracy activists across the world have pointed out that these steps are not enough to prevent the subversion of democracy by digital firms. In the Indian context, the Social Media Platforms and Internet and Mobile Association of India presented a “Voluntary Code of Ethics for the General Election 2019” to the Election Commission. This code of ethics was agreed upon by social media and digital platforms (including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat and TikTok etc.) but is a non-binding document. The organizations called for more stringent regulations and the disclosure of information on campaign spending to the public.

The speakers at the press conference included Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner; Kamal Kant Jaswal, president, Common Cause; Prabir Purkayastha, president, Free Software Movement of India; Apar Gupta, lawyer and co-founder, Internet Freedom Foundation; Sundar Burra, a former bureaucrat; and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, journalist, author and media educator. This joint platform urged the parties to include in their manifestos a commitment to work out a cap on political spending in future elections

Some of the demands made were to the Election Commission of India were:

  1. Monitor compliance: The Election Commission of India should monitor the online spending of political parties for election campaigns, and not just spending by candidates.
  2. Improve transparency: Recently, digital platforms have announced steps for greater transparency on digital spending. Some of these measures include declaration of the identity of those paying for/publishing ads, as well as various kinds of verification. It is important in this context that there be a common understanding of what constitutes a political ad. The Election Commission must initiate a process involving political parties and tech firms which evolves common definitions on such ads. Similarly, the verification process announced by various firms must be certified by the Election Commission and must be transparent. These safeguards have been implemented in other countries, too, especially the US, but reports have pointed to the ease with which they can be bypassed. The Election Commission must conduct an independent audit of the declaration processes for political ads. Specific steps may include:
    1. Direct digital platforms to aggregate and provide it details regarding electoral ad/promotion spend, as well as information on expenditures for ads/promotions by political parties and their listed IT cells and social media promoters. This information must be made public.
    2. Direct digital platforms to track the monetization of posts (the practice of paying money to boost the visibility of posts)on social media platforms by political parties, as well as by individuals representing these partiesThe digital platforms should also disclose the specific demographics being targeted. The amounts spent on monetised posts and the identities of their target groups should be made public.
    3. Caution all major Internet and social media firms that foreign funded advertisements supporting or assisting political candidates entail a violation of Indian laws, including the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act.
    4. Request relevant governments/departments in the US, UK, and the EU for any filings/data pertaining to services, compensation offered to candidates running for office required to be filed under the foreign bribery laws of such countries (for example, the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the UK Anti-Bribery Act).
  3. Prevent profiling and hate speech: The Election Commission should ensure that Facebook and digital platforms are not used to target communities on the lines of caste, religion, ethnicity and linguistic identity, or in any other way that violates the electoral code of conduct. The same regulations should be applicable for apps developed by/for political parties.
    1. Digital platforms must not do anything that influences the voting process in any way.
    2. All digital firms must establish a robust and transparent complaints mechanism, with nodal officers to deal with reports of violations of norms on their platforms.

Digital platforms must conduct outreach programs aimed at their users to familiarize them with the process of complaints. Digital firms should also make public the process by which they deal with these complaints so as to enable audit of the corrective measures

(With inputs from Newsclick)