Is The Election Commission Of India Late In Keeping A Check On Politicians’ Use Of Social Media?

The Election Commission of India has accepted social media as a challenge and started quite a few initiative to monitor social media activities of politicians but can they be implemented and isn't it late now.

Will social media be a deciding factor in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections? May be or may be not. But has that stopped political parties from investing in social media, not really. The Indian National Congress party which has taken a while to adopt the medium is now investing from creating a formidable presence to fighting with its opponents on social networks and investing in training spokespersons aggressively.

The opposition party BJP has been ahead in the game though and with the ever growing presence of Narendra Modi on social media, one can only see the party’s belief in the medium from early days. In fact the year old ‘Aam Aadmi Party’ started by activist Arvind Kejriwal which is contesting the Delhi state elections this year, has witnessed strong support from social media but the growth has been organic with very little paid initiatives being carried out on social media.

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While social media has opened new doors for political parties to connect and converse with a new section of audience in the country, at the same time it has posed a new challenge for the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Chief Election Officer Umesh Sinha knows this very well. Fighting against the new challenge, ECI has now started pulling the right strings to keep a check on the social media usage by politicians and the political parties. To name a few recent moves – the ECI would be bringing social media into the ambit of paid news by cracking the whip on paid content circulated on social networking sites apart from restraining paid news items in print and electronic media.

Additionally, ECI is planning to keep a close look on the campaigning activities carried out by political parties via social media. From tracking the cash flow being invested on social media by political parties to keeping a check on proxy profiles the ECI wants to execute it all. For the monitoring task, the ECI has started pitching to IT experts who would help the district level committee to check the misuse of social media and its illegal use for campaigning.

A rational move considering the present times but the execution and the ECI’s understanding of the medium is to be questioned here.

Tracking social media investments

Social media investments by political parties have increased over the months. Just the other day we had reported that – as per IAMAI’s latest social media report – political parties have earmarked around 2%-5% of their election budgets for social media. Spends on social media have been from a pretty long time and with the elections knocking on the door, the ECI now wishes to keep a check on the social media expenditure. How is the ECI going to keep a track and what about the investments the political parties have undertaken before this decision by ECI?

Offline spends and online spends work very differently and the same model can’t be applied to both. Even if the parties submit expenses made under social media, how is the ECI going to cross check. What if the social investments were not made by the party but by party workers, in such case will the ECI ignore such expenses due to its inability to track them down. What would be included in social media investments, only paid social ads, will the hiring of staff for social media come into picture? What if the party says that the social media or digital team are a bunch of passionate volunteers who are supporting the party?

Monitoring fake profiles and objectionable content

While keeping a check on the expenses, the ECI also wants to keep a track of fake profiles, objectionable content and monitoring. For this work to be carried out, the ECI has decided to pitch in information technology experts, who would keep an eye on use of social media by political parties.

This set of measures look good on paper but again have loop holes in them. The ECI has not revealed what kind of monitoring tool will it be using to monitor activities on social media platforms. I am assuming that it understands the process can’t be performed manually. Even if it wishes to hire a monitoring tool then isn’t it late now, with the elections knocking on the door!

Fake profiles are a menace on social networks and there is no doubt that political parties have taken the advantage of this to gain wider reach and creating havoc specially on Twitter but how is the ECI planning to control it? There has been no clarification on the same.

I am not being pessimistic about the moves of ECI but like the government it has made a late call in understanding the gravity of the medium and the present set of ways it has decided to execute have quite a few flaws. The ECI acknowledges social media as a big challenge but right now it is clueless in overpowering the challenge.