'Digital India' votes in April: How will social media sites maintain credibility in polls?

Though an important tool to reach out to the people, social media platforms have been grappling with a host of issues such as fake news, propaganda and data leaks

SocialMedia

The Lok Sabha election is now just a month away and the political battle is heating up, with parties taking on each other on all possible platforms. With the wide reach of internet in the present times, social media has emerged as an important battleground. But though one of the most influential tools to reach out to people, these platforms have been grappling with a host of challenges such as fake news, propaganda and date leaks.

According to an Oxford Internet Institute report,'Global Inventory of Organized Social Media Manipulation' released in October 2018, evidence of manipulative campaigns has been found in at least 48 countries. The report mentions that India is among the 13 countries where “political parties and campaign managers have directly hired PR or consulting firms to help spread computational propaganda during elections.”

Brand expert Amman Abbas, Co-founder, Commwiser, too feels that social media platforms will have a huge responsibility during elections because “web is the most influential tool of the modern world and most of the decisions of an individual today are based on the content available online.”

So how will these platforms maintain their credibility during elections?

Last year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that fake news is a way too big category. He said that the social network is taking "multi-variable" steps including the use of Artificial Intelligence to curb the spread of misleading information ahead of 2019 general elections in India. The platform has clarified that all parties must produce certification from the Election Commission of India before submitting their ads.

Similarly, Google is about to launch a searchable Political Ads Library this month. It aims to provide information about who is buying election ads on the site and how much are they spending. Like Twitter, the search giant has also introduced new rules regarding election ads. Now to purchase an advertisement spot, advertisers must provide a certificate from the Election Commission of India which is verified by Google before running the ad.

Facebook too has expanded its third-party fact-checking partnerships in India ahead of the elections. It has roped in India Today Group, Factly, Newsmobile, and Fact Crescendo. It is also working with Agence France Presse and BoomLive in India. Also, Facebook users in India will see disclaimers on ads that feature politicians, parties, elections or pieces of legislation. The ads will carry labels informing who published or paid for them, along with details of the pages running the ads. Users can also look up political ads in a searchable library, which will show how many impressions an ad made, which demographic groups it reached and how much was spent on it.

According to a media report, both BJP and Congress have already started campaigns on WhatsApp. The report claims that BJP has around 2,00,000-3,00,000 groups and Congress has 80,000 to 1,00,00 groups across the nation.

According to brand experts, some small steps can help these social media sites can prevent them from being misused by political parties.

N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research, feels that the action taken by Facebook and Twitter is an important step taken in the interest of the users. By bringing in more scrutiny, one can expect lesser propaganda, and this will automatically give impetus to user engagement, he says. Chandramouli suggests that all social media platforms should ensure that they have a regulatory body in place to scrutinise all information which gets posted on their site.

Brand expert Saurabh Uboweja too highlights that social media platforms have the dual responsibility of operating within the laws of the nation as well as ensuring that their credibility remains intact among their target audience in India. To combat fake news and political propaganda, they should run public education campaigns, he feels. 

Abbas believes that the first step to combat fake news and propaganda is creating awareness among users. “The way Whatsapp rolled out a 360-degree campaign to spread awareness on how to verify the news, a campaign must be carried out at the grassroots level to spread awareness on the subject. The next step should be instant action on abusive and aggressive content. As soon as such content is reported, instant action should be taken and authorities should be informed,” he suggests.

“The social media channels may take strict steps to avoid campaigns running online on the basis of religion, caste, gender and race. We should also see Election Commission working together with these social media channels to monitor and control campaigns,” adds Aman.

Saurabh Uboweja shares, “Social media platforms must look at India from a fresh perspective when it comes to honoring the law of the land; just like it happened in the European nations after the implementation of GDPR.”

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