India’s online world of WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, some of which can be bought by the hour, has thrown up a set of unique challenges. How does one regulate a realm of smoke and mirrors where the identity of key actors and their motives is tenuous at best? Although the MCC has applied to internet platforms since 2013, no attempt has been made to enforce it thus far. The EC has now announced a series of new measures, which fall into two broad categories.
A little over a week later, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) came into effect ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with the Election Commission of India announcing its intent to enforce it on internet platforms for the first time. The MCC is a set of guidelines that regulate elections in India, one of which cautions against using the armed forces in campaigning. Sharma’s posters became the first to be targeted under the new regime and have since been taken down.
The first encompasses measures designed to increase transparency in campaigning, such as verification of the identities and locations of all political advertisers, and disclosure of candidates’ social media accounts and expenditure. The second category includes norms aimed at curbing misinformation and hate speech by candidates: pre-certification of political ads by the ECI’s Media Certification and Monitoring Committee and the creation of dedicated grievance redressal channels through which the ECI can flag and takedown problematic content quickly.
Further, the EC has made no mention of regulating smaller platforms such as TikTok, Helo, Telegram, and WeChat, which are becoming increasingly relevant for political mobilization in rural and small-town India. And although Facebook has agreed to work with the EC, none of the election-related initiatives announced by the company apply to its encrypted messenger service, WhatsApp, which is widely regarded as a hotbed of misinformation and hate speech.
The EC has announced that the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), under whose leadership the four major platforms co-ordinated with the EC to evolve and agree upon the new measures, is currently working on a code of ethics for internet platforms. “The initial group was formed to participate in the Sinha Committee [which was looking into Section 126 of the Representation of People Act]. No one declined to participate in either the committee proceedings or the making of [new] procedures,” said Subho Ray, president of the IAMAI.