A CODE OF ETHICS FOR THE ELECTION SEASON

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Last week, a host of social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat, TikTok, among others, and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) presented a Voluntary Code of Ethics for the 2019 General Election to the Election Commission (EC). This code of ethics has been established to ensure free, fair and ethical use of social media platforms to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. The code, which has been voluntarily agreed upon by the platforms, is effective dated 20 March and will be in force for the duration of the polls. Furthermore, the code shall apply within the existing legal framework in India.

 

The platforms will attempt to deploy appropriate policies and measures to facilitate access of information regarding electoral matters on their products and services, and will voluntarily undertake education and communication campaigns to build awareness regarding electoral laws. They will further create a dedicated team along with a strong reporting mechanism for the EC during the polls for taking quick action on any reported violations under Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, within three hours as per Sinha Committee recommendations.

 

In addition, the platforms have agreed to provide a mechanism for political advertisers to submit pre-certified advertisements issued by the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee. The aim is to facilitate transparency in paid political advertisements. In this whole process, IAMAI has also agreed to coordinate with the social media platforms to maintain the code of ethics.

 

WHAT IS THE NEED FOR THE CODE OF ETHICS?

The answer lies in the blatant misuse of social media in the recent past. The massive data scandal at Facebook is still fresh in the minds of the people, wherein a London-based consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, along with the social media giant, came under scrutiny for using personal data of millions of Facebook users in the US, UK and beyond, without consent.

Even more concerning was the fact that the social media network used the said data to determine who voters might choose at the ballot box, which may have also influenced the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. On top of it, the Russian government allegedly used social media to spread misinformation or biased information during the US election to support Donald Trump in defeating rival candidate Hillary Clinton.

 

Several other social media platforms, including Twitter and Google, also faced severe criticism for failing to curb the spread of fake news on its platforms, and allowing Russian-backed trolls to buy ads to spread misinformation on their platforms.

 

Recently, the EC raised an issue with Facebook over posters by two political parties carrying photographs of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman as a case of misuse of information for political mileage. Hence, this voluntary code of ethics comes amid concerns of misuse of social media ahead of the Lok Sabha polls - the world’s largest election. Misinformation, hate speech and contentious content have been flagged as major worries ahead of the enormous exercise.

 

PROs AND CONs OF THE CODE:

There are both pros and cons for social media platforms as they present the code of ethics.

 

Ensuring fair and free elections, curbing fake news and spread of misinformation, stopping the abuse of users’ data, building confidence with the government after the recent scandals, strengthening brand reputation, and winning back the trust of consumers at large are the upsides for social media platforms.

 

However, it comes with a flip side too, i.e. failing to adhere to the code of ethics will result in breach of trust with the government and the EC, which may further lead to legal actions and hefty fines for the social media platforms to bear.

Specifically, with respect to the code, the three-hour timeline to report any violations might be difficult to maintain given the complexities of the nature/type of content at hand.

 

Other risks for the platforms will be the loss of reputation, which may lead to boycott of the platform and exodus of users; expose the failure of the platforms time and again to battle areas of concern and more importantly it may jeopardise the use of social media platforms during elections going forward. Hence, there is more pressure on the platforms to ensure that the code is followed rigorously.

While this is the first time social media platforms have voluntarily adopted the code of ethics for online election campaigns, the move is promising indeed and a positive start ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, but we will have to wait and watch the effectiveness of the execution of the code.

 

The formulation of the code of ethics certainly gives rise to a new age of self-regulation.