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The role of social media in disrupting elections

We got to witness the power of social media in influencing public opinion with a revolutionary Arab Spring moment, spread across the Middle East, North Africa region from 2011 onwards. It ended up toggling, many dictatorial governments, it will push several countries into civil war. This made political parties, governments, and intelligence agencies around the world to sit up and take notice of the power of social media. And it made them realize how effective social media platforms can be used to market public opinion, and even to disrupt democratic elections.

We got to witness the power of social media in influencing public opinion with a revolutionary Arab Spring moment, spread across the Middle East, North Africa region from 2011 onwards. It ended up toggling, many dictatorial governments, it will push several countries into civil war. This made political parties, governments, and intelligence agencies around the world to sit up and take notice of the power of social media. And it made them realize how effective social media platforms can be used to market public opinion, and even to disrupt democratic elections.
We have seen political parties, investing heavily in social media campaigning and the role of political parties, private corporations consultancy firms, governments, and intelligence agencies misusing social media platforms for disrupting elections have raised questions of accountability and electoral fraud.

For example, in 2016, we saw the influence of social media on US presidential elections, which involved allegations of Russian involvement in meddling with social media campaigns. Even in India, we have seen how elections have become deeply influenced by social media campaigns. And this has been witnessed during numerous state elections and as well as during the national elections 2014 and 2019. The scandal involving Cambridge analytical and Facebook has exposed the nexus between consultancy firms, political parties, and social media organizations in disrupting the conduct of free and fair elections.
 In the context of Indian elections, social media campaigning has raised two particular challenges for the Election Commission of India.

The first challenge is about making the model code of conduct applicable in the online domain, especially about the observation of the silence period.
The second challenge is to monitor the expenses incurred by the political parties, and by the candidates on a social media campaign. 

The model code of conduct is a set of guidelines and dogs that have been brought up by the Election Commission of India. To ensure the conduct of free and fair elections as mandated by Article 324 of the Indian Constitution. These guidelines were first brought out during the 1960s state elections in Kerala at the board put time into a comprehensive set of guidelines, known as the model code of conduct. These guidelines and norms, basically place a set of restrictions on political parties and candidates about campaigning election speeches, public rallies, and processions. And these guidelines privately tried to prevent the usage of hate speech by candidates during their speeches and rallies. It prohibits the bribing and intimidation of voters. It also places, a set of restrictions on the party that is in power, and it restricts the incumbent government from launching any new schemes and policies. After the Body Code of Conduct has been put in place.
The model code of conduct comes into effect since the day the elections are announced, and it lasts until the entire electoral process is completed. These restrictions on the incumbent government have been applied, primarily to prevent the party in power from misusing its position in power to influence voters through new schemes and policies in the run-up to elections. It also provides for the restrictions and protocols that need to be observed on polling day. And it also provides for a silence period that begins 48 hours before voting, during which all sorts of campaigning is completely prohibited strictly observing the silence period is very essential to provide the required time for the voter to decide upon his choice of candidate. It is also essential to prevent the bribing on the interpretation of the voter and to prevent the negative influence of any last-minute campaigning by the political parties and the candidates.
It is quite easy to observe the silence period, because of the Election Commission of India, with the help of the police machinery. Can strictly enforce the silence period, and place a ban on all sorts of campaigning speeches rallies and advertisements in electronic and print media. But observing the silence period in the virtual world has emerged as a challenge for the Election Commission. Because considering the nature of the Internet, and the reach of social media platforms. It has become virtually impossible for the Election Commission to extend the ambit of the model code of conduct, to social media campaigning, and thereby, it has become difficult for the Election Commission to tackle hate speech and observe the mandatory silence period, as far as social media campaigning is concerned.


Today, political parties are spending huge sums of money on running social engineering, and influence operations, through a social media campaigning. And they even established dedicated IT cells with their parties, and they even tie-up with private consultancy firms that provide these services. 
The next challenge for the Election Commission is to monitor the money that political parties and candidates are spending on social media campaigns. Because before election campaigning, the election commission would have set an expenditure limit.
In the case of the Lok Sabha elections, the ceiling amount is set at 70 lakh rupees. But in practice, the ceiling norms are conveniently breached, and the Election Commission is finding it difficult to track the expenses of parties and candidates.

On extensive social media campaigns that are designed to influence the voter. So to counter the suppression of the conduct of free and fair elections to social media campaigning. The Election Commission has taken a few steps.

The Election Commission has extended the ambit of the model code of conduct, and the expense limit to social media campaigning and social media advertisements as well. These guidelines and norms place a set of obligations on social media firms and as well as on the candidates and the political parties.
 Last year before the national elections, social media firms came up with the voluntary code to regulate political content and political acts on their platforms, and they will set aside, dedicated resources for this purpose.
To bring in greater transparency about political advertisements. The Election Commission on its part has issued a set of guidelines that applies for social media firms and under these guidelines, social media firms have been mandated to accept only certified political advertisements that have been pre-approved by the Election Commission of India.
 They've also been asked to adhere to the silence period jobs as per the model code of conduct. To remove all political ads and social media campaigns, 48, hours before voting begins. They've also been asked to share all the payments that they have received from political parties and candidates so that the Election Commission can keep a track of these expenses

Through another set of guidelines candidates and political parties have been asked by Election Commission to submit all details of their social media handles by filing their nominations. They should also report to the Election Commission on the expenses and payments that they are incurring on their social media campaigns and others to these guidelines are strictly monitored by the district and state-level committees that are will be constituted by the Election Commission to monitor political ads that are published on electronic platforms, radio, and as well as social media platforms. This committee knows as the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee approves the election-related ads, and it also takes note of any violations.
However, the strategy of the election commission to regulate social media campaign has several shortcomings.

First and foremost, the model code of conduct in itself is not legally enforceable. This is because the model code of conduct does not have any legal backlink. It is not a law that specifies the kind of penalties that can be imposed on those who violate the guidelines. So as of now, the Election Commission enforces the model code of conduct indirectly to other related provisions that are found in the Indian Penal Code. The Criminal Procedure Code, and the representation of people. But these provisions are not sufficient. And there's been a long-standing demand to provide legal status to the model code of conduct. To make it strictly enforceable. As a result of this, the interpretation of the modern code of conduct, and its violations is left to the discretion of the election commissioners, the chief electoral officers, and the returning officers. So there have been numerous instances where the Election Commission has failed to act, even based on genuine complaints received from the public and the opposition parties about violations committed by the candidates and the political parties.

Next, the ability of the election commission to effectively monitor social media platforms, is very limited, especially that of close social media platforms. To monitor social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. They find it difficult to monitor closed social media platforms such as WhatsApp telegram, etc. which have a far wider reach and impact as compared to Facebook and other open social media platforms. And the certification and monitoring committee of the election commission can only monitor those social media handles that have accounts, and it has no resources or means to monitor political advertisements issued by third parties.

Last year before the national elections. The Election Commission had launched the See Vigil app. To receive complaints from the public about model code violations. But this application was primarily designed to receive complaints about violations committed in the real world. And it did not factor in the violations that could be committed in the virtual world. So overall, there is still a long way to go for the Election Commission to strictly regulate social media campaigning. And if it wishes to conduct forget fair elections. By controlling social engineering and influence operations, run through social media campaigns that the answer lies in sweeping electoral reforms that place, a set of responsibilities and obligations, or not just the political parties and candidates, but also on social media firms, as well as on private consultancy firms.








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