Eye on Web: Is EC chewing more than it can swallow?

Political parties, experts wonder how election commission can monitor social media; criticise move to put gaming, apps among candidate expenditure

jasleen

Jasleen Kaur | November 11, 2013


Many feel election commission should focus on conducting elections, it`s primary responsibility, than get into uncharted territories and fret over what people or politicians put out on social media.
Many feel election commission should focus on conducting elections, it`s primary responsibility, than get into uncharted territories and fret over what people or politicians put out on social media.

  • A kurta-clad character resembling Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, navigates through various obstacles and runs through states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh – winning them all to become the prime minister of India.
  • A character resembling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal runs through the streets with a broom, the party’s election symbol, in hand, sweeping all the muck.

Welcome to the actual virtual world of elections! With more than 900 million cellphone users, the second-largest subscriber base in the world, little wonder that more and more Indians are taking to games and downloading apps like ‘Modi Run’ and the ‘Aam Aadmi Runner’ as the election fever firms its grip.

While many software developers are coming out with innovative applications and games – the ‘Aam Aadmi Runner’ is developed by Greedygame Media and ‘Modi Run’ by to US-based Dexati – to cash in on the poll fever, as also to woo voters, the election commission (EC) is tuning up its radar.

In a first, EC is not just seeking detailed expenditure records of candidates but would also keep an eye on use of social media by candidates and political parties to reach out to voters. Acknowledging the growing use of social media for political campaigns, EC guidelines have clubbed social media under five broad categories: collaborative projects (Wikipedia), blogs and micro-blogs (Twitter), content communities (YouTube), social networking sites (Facebook), and virtual game worlds (apps).

According to the guidelines, released late October, all candidates have to declare in their affidavits information such as their email and social media accounts. Further, all political advertisement on websites or social media will need pre-certification from the commission.

The EC has also clarified that expenditure incurred on online campaigns will be seen as expenditure to be filed as part of the candidates’ and parties’ statements to the commission.

But the guidelines do not define the course of action in case the content is being posted by a third person – and not the candidate or the political party concerned. But what about surrogate advertisements, like the popular Modi or Kejriwal games, where the parties would obviously draw the benefit but can claim to have nothing to do with it? There’s no answer to that – at least not as of now. The commission is discussing practical ways to deal with the issue with the ministry of communication and information technology.

This, experts said, has resulted in the ambiguity on video games developed by private software firms.

While many have questioned the EC’s move to get into uncharted territory instead of focusing on holding the elections better, members of political parties said the guidelines are well-meaning but inadequate to regulate the web-world.

Manish Sisodia, national executive committee member of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has created a stir with its online campaigns in the run-up to Delhi assembly polls, said EC is doing a good job to control election expenses but needs to “evolve and bring in more clarity”.

“It is possible to monitor whether someone is paying for likes on Facebook,” Sisodia said, alluding to BJP’s allegation earlier this year that Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot was buying “likes” for his official Facebook page to project his popularity. “But how would they monitor games and applications downloaded on mobile phones? It is for EC to decide whether they want to put it in the name of the candidate (his/her expenditure) but I feel they should not – after all, some software company developed it (games and apps) and candidates are not even using it to promote themselves.”

Clarifying that the EC writ should not be confused with any intrusion on freedom of expression, former election commissioner SY Quraishi said: “The order is with reference to political parties and candidates – that too in the context of expenditure and objectionable content that violates the model code of conduct. The EC is not interfering with citizens' right to free speech and expression.”

Explaining the rationale behind the move, Quraishi said, “The major concern is money spent by candidates on social media through their campaigns. The law requires that every rupee spent on campaigning must be accounted for. This obviously includes expenditure on different media, including new media. We have noticed an extensive and increasing use of SMSes because of its instant reach. But no media comes free – if a candidate spends money on it, he/she is by law duty-bound to show it in the mandatory expenditure statements.

“Many candidates have suffered consequences, including unseating and disqualification, for not submitting the returns correctly. Does this amount to interference with the freedom of expression? Certainly not.”

Quraishi, however, agreed that it would be a difficult task monitor the new media.

Calling the EC decision a step in a blind alley, Sanjay Kaul, member of Delhi BJP executive committee, said the commission has come out with guidelines but is not clear on its implementation. “No one has clarity because social media cannot be entirely regulated,” he said. “Every candidate has a fixed cap to spend on advertisements and if someone else does surrogate promotion that would also be counted in the candidate’s account. But we have no idea how EC would do this (monitoring) in case of a game or an application that has a politician as the main character – they are developed by private companies; candidates have no role to play in it.”

Stressing that the EC guidelines “will not be effective” Shubho Sengupta, Delhi-based adman and digital consultant, said: “Unlike traditional media the source of the content on social media cannot be identified. In social mediums like Facebook, anyone can create a page and can start putting direct or indirect messages for or against political leaders. In case of websites, you can segregate the websites that are for or against (a particular political leader/party) but you cannot really catch people behind it. It is an open space.”

Likewise, Rohit Bansal, CEO of India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting, said, “I see it as an unwise move by a group of people who are unfamiliar with the social media. I do not see this in conjugation with the government in power. I feel it would substantially undo the good will of the election commission in enforcing the bridge on behalf of people. This cannot be implemented at all.”

Explaining why it’s not possible to monitor social media, Gautam Benegal, Mumbai-based artist, filmmaker and social commentator, said: “Internet is an anonymous and free place. It is a verifiable fact that it is difficult to separate weed from the chaff on it. I don’t consider this as a matter to discuss at all – there is no point taking a stand on it, as there is no way it can be implemented. (Even) on principle, it (monitoring the Web) is not a desirable thing to do, as it would lead to a space where all content could be censored. And this could be applicable to other subjects as well.

The EC, he said, should “just focus on conducting fair elections” instead of getting into the digital space, “which is not its mandate”.

Sengupta also said, “The nature of the medium (online) almost makes it impossible for them to monitor it. But I agree that EC should monitor it because there is a lot of hate speech going on. They are implementing it for the first year and that is going to be a major challenge for them.”

Ishan Russel, managing partner for The Image People, a firm specialising in campaign management of political parties, said regulating every comment online is impossible and the best EC can do is ensure there is no hate campaign online. “The games are not developed by the party or the candidate, and unless it is in bad taste or hurts anyone, candidates shouldn’t be made liable for this,” Russel said. “They (EC) might not be able to implement these guidelines.”

However, Pratik Gupta, director of new business at Foxy Moron, which has worked with political parties on their digital campaigns in the past, said it is not possible for software developers to come out with a game that has a character resembling political leaders of Modi’s stature without prior permission of the party. 

Supporting EC’s move to monitor social media, including games and apps, Gupta said, “If there is no political propaganda in a game, political parties can still put their advertisements in between to target people.”

(A version of this article appears in the November 16-30, 2013 issue of the print magazine)

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