Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sunil Arora on Friday said that social media companies will be held responsible if they fail to make adequate arrangements to counter misuse and don’t take prompt action against adverse posts ahead of the Bihar assembly elections.
“Adverse use of social media platforms has emerged as a new challenge in recent times,” Arora said. “If adequate arrangements aren’t made to counter the misuse of the social media, then they (social media companies) will not be allowed to take pretext of being only a platform and shall be held responsible if necessary action is not taken promptly and adequately.”
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His reference is to the immunity social media companies claim by saying they do not control the content on their websites.
The Commission has also asked political parties and candidates to sensitise their representatives not to indulge in ”malpractices, malicious propaganda and instances of hate-speech” on these platforms , and warned that those doing so will be dealt with “sternly” and “harshly”.
“The commission would like to make it emphatically clear that anyone who misuses any such platform, such as for fomenting communal tensions, etc for electoral purposes, shall have to face consequences under the law of the land,” Arora said.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Commission and social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, along with Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) signed a voluntary code of ethics. According to the code, while the participants ‘”ecognise they are neither the author, nor the publisher of such content”, they are “committed to helping support democratic processes by improving the integrity and transparency of electoral processes”.
Hindustan Times reached out to Facebook and Facebook-controlled Whatsapp for a comment but did not receive any response until press time. Twitter declined comment.
The immunity provided to social media companies allows them to enjoy the upside of the media business (advertising, the main source of revenue for such firms) without having to exercise the responsibility or meet the statutory obligations of a media company.
Recent reports have also shown that most of these companies are selective in their moderation.
The Wall Street Journal reported in August that Facebook had selectively exercised its hate-speech policy to favour the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The government was quick to react with Information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad writing to the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying that the platform allowed people to make posts against prime minister Narendra Modi.
According to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named, the Commission draws its reservoir of power from Article 324 of the constitution. “Elections are conducted under Constitution and the Supreme Court in its judgment has held on a number of occasions that Article 324 gives vast powers to the Commission subject to certain restrictions such as fairness and transparency,” said one of them.
Article 324 allows the Election Commission the “superintendence, direction and control of elections”. The EC invoked this provision in West Bengal in May last year, curtailing campaigning in the state ahead of Parliamentary elections after clashes between cadres of the BJP and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Kolkata.
Experts, however, say ECI’s powers to regulate social media companies are limited.
“Their authority to regulate platforms is not clearly provided,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima , global cybersecurity lead and Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now . “They are stretching the authority they have to regulate electronic media and threatening companies by proposing to further regulate or prosecute them.”
“It’s commendable that the CEC is speaking about this; however, ECI has failed to advance any reforms to protect electoral democracy in the digital age in India. Prior to the 2019 general elections, many groups working on electoral reforms, democracy and fundamental rights issues wrote to the ECI and went public with their suggestion on how ECI can take steps in this area. They also recommended they engage all stakeholders on this important issue, not just political parties in Delhi , internet companies, and their industry lobby group. This has not yet occurred, which is deeply disturbing,” he added.