2019 elections: A regulated social media war

While Facebook has made it mandatory to produce verification documents, Twitter India has been working with political parties and Election Commission to report suspicious activities on its portal

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy & Ruhail Amin
Updated: Aug 21, 2019 4:24 PM

This election will be fought as much online as it would be offline. With over 500 million internet users in India, political parties-both big and small-are looking at active engagements across social media platforms.  

In the previous general elections in 2014, BJP used the reach of the Internet to popularise Narendra Modi’s ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ campaign and the initiative visibly worked in their favour. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, there were 481 million Internet users in India until December 2017, compared to 278 million in 2014, a 73 per cent increase. And political parties are ready to leverage this growth in the number of internet users.

“We are going to be aggressively using technology to reach out to the masses because it offers a level playing field, is democratic and decentralised. But as we know, the biggest danger to the Indian democracy today is fake news. I think it is extremely worrying because you can put out wrong data to support your cause,” said Sanjay Jha, National Spokesperson with the Indian National Congress.

Reports about Russian meddling in the US elections and its fallout in India have led social media platforms to impose self-regulations. “Facebook has made it mandatory for one to disclose their identity for political advertisements. One needs to produce an Indian passport, driver’s licence and PAN or voter ID card for verification to book a political ad on Facebook. Every advertisement will now be counted as election expenditure. This will stop deep-pocketed parties from putting in money in such advertisements from unrecognised sources,” said social media strategist Naresh Arora, director of Design Boxed, a company that helped the Congress devise its campaign in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

For protecting the integrity of election conversation on their platform, Twitter India team has been closely working with political parties as well as the Election Commission of India in order to report suspicious, abusive and illegal activities on Twitter.

“The 2019 Lok Sabha elections is a priority for the company and our dedicated cross-functional team has been working to ensure that the health of public conversation is enhanced and protected at this important time,” said Colin Crowell, Global VP, public policy, Twitter. 

Twitter has launched a support portal for election partners to provide feedback directly about issues and concerns that could arise during the 2019 Indian elections. This process has been designed to ensure the company receives and reviews critical feedback about emerging issues as quickly as possible.

Twitter teams have been working closely with political parties across the spectrum to train them on making the best use of Twitter to engage with their constituents. They are also holding training camps and workshops with both regional and national parties like the BJP, Congress, CPI and CPI-M, and their respective state units.

But what has been the most popular medium to propagate political message? The answer is: Facebook. “Facebook is still the most popular platform to reach out to voters. However, it is Instagram where the young voters are and hence has become a popular medium to engage with the youth,” said Arora. 

According to the media strategist, while the BJP spends over 50 per cent of their election expenditure on Digital campaigns that includes social media, the opposition should invest close to 70 per cent of their budget in the medium because this time around it is authentic, accountable and also cheaper when compared to traditional media.

WhatsApp has also made significant changes to their product for the upcoming elections. Limiting the number of forwards at one go is one such initiative.

This time, there are players like AltNews and Boom Fact Check who have been cross-checking every viral message and propaganda, and busting fake news in the country.

However, some political parties are still not sure if social media platforms are doing enough to ensure transparent engagements.

“Social media can go completely roguish or it can be informative. At one level it is a democratic forum, it gives everybody a voice but at another level it is also an agency of distortion. Though Facebook and Twitter are taking some steps to address these issues, there are fears that they might exercise censorship. So this technology is still a learning process and a double-edged sword,” said Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta.

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