First and foremost, it is an undeniable fact that the media has always played a vital role in every election starting from 1951. During the first couple of elections, there was not much prevalence of media, especially electronic media. Pamphlets, posters, banners, newspapers, etc. were used to woo voters. The culture of political campaigning began on a serious note during the 1971 general election, when Indira Gandhi used the slogan of “Garibi Hatao.”
It was an era when the radio was evolving at a rapid pace and the television had just been introduced to general masses. Further, when we talk about the popular “India Shining” campaign by Vajpayee or “Achhe Din” by Modi in 2014, the media has always played a leading role in the propagation of their slogans. But why is the 2019 election different from the earlier ones?
This, in my opinion, is because the media has witnessed major changes with the course of time: technologically, professionally as well as ethically. Even if we compare the upcoming election with the preceding ones, the media has witnessed huge growth. According to an IANS report, the number of Internet users in India was around 25 crore in 2014. Today it is 55 crores; smartphone usage has crossed the 40-crore mark; Facebook has nearly 30 crore users active on a monthly basis in India, WhatsApp has over 20 crore and Twitter approximately 3.4 crore.
In the 2014 election, Rahul Gandhi did not even have a Twitter account, but today he has 88 lakh followers, which is nowhere close to Modi, who has 4.3 crore followers. Anyway, the times have changed and television media no longer dominates the information dissemination scenario. So here, we can go with a basic premise that unlike the 2014 general election, which in my opinion, was fought on the television, this upcoming one is being fought on social media.
Now a question may arise, why should we call social media platforms ‘the biggest battleground?’ Because this particular form of media incorporates all other forms, whether we talk about print, electronics, the internet, etc. In other words, we can say that on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube we can have access to all types of content that is being disseminated by traditional media.
As we all know, the demographic dividend, i.e. working age population [youth] is about 64%, and substantial numbers of them are primarily dependent upon social media for information. It is not only the youth, but people across all ages these days that are active on various media platforms. So, certainly the content which is circulated through these platforms influence the mindset of the people.
But the youth is way more vulnerable to social media, as it is almost addicted to it, and according to me, shows less maturity in interpreting messages in multiple ways. So this group is an easy target by political parties for increasing their vote banks.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal has already proved how social media can play an enormous role in manipulating the election verdict. The scandal played a significant part in inciting public discussion on ethical standards in the context of social media companies, politicians, etc. Consumer advocates made a case for greater consumer protection on online media and the right to privacy and filters on misinformation and propaganda. As expected, this scandal had a major impact on Donald Trump’s campaign in 2016, the Mexican election in 2018 and many more.
Social media which has facilitated the freedom of speech and expression is also a huge platform for fake news, trolling and manipulated content. It has indeed become a blessing for the political fraternity, with less investment and more profit. Realising the importance of technology, every political party has its own IT cells run across the country, propagating agenda and garnering people’s faith.
Every political party is busy trolling each other, and no one cares about the misinformation flooding the social networking sites. Usually, I find that the viral content in these platforms is short, biased and strong in nature. And today’s youngsters have no time to question or verify the consumed content, which results in manipulation of their minds. We want more information within a short span of time, without knowing that much of it could be misinformation or simply lack of information.
Keeping in view the adverse impact of social media on election outcomes, the Election Commission of India has issued a handful of guidelines for the use of social media by the 2019 candidates and parties which includes pre-certification of ad. As a result of this, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can now run only pre-certified ads. SMSes sent in bulk and voice messages will also require pre-certification. Apart from sharing the expenses for online campaigning with the Election Commission, the political candidates will also have to share details of their social media accounts. An app called C-Vigil has been developed which will allow citizens to report violations confidentially.
The guidelines set up by the election commission sound nice, but the implementation is still under scrutiny. Further, the commission has not clarified any specific penal provisions for violation of those guidelines. Although the menace of fake news through social media becomes severe during the election, it has become an integral challenge for the democratic set up in digital era. And this certainly needs immediate attentions and a permanent solution.
The German parliament in 2017 voted for a law that included the provision to levy fines on major social media enterprises such as Facebook and YouTube, given their failure to remove hate posts within a given time. Facebook has introduced a tool in Germany that allows users flag suspicious content, this will be monitored by a team of 700 employees in Berlin. Why can’t such initiatives be taken in country like India too? If this menace of fake news circulated via social media platforms is not sorted out, the democracy would continue to be a kingdom of blind people, ruled by one-eyed kings.