With the commencement of electoral campaigns after the dates for 2019 General Elections were announced, the Election Commission(EC) has issued a ‘Code of Ethics‘ for political parties along with social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp.
The ‘Code of Ethics’ is issued under the purview of section 126 of Representation of People’s Act, 1951. This act restricts the advertising by political parties before 48 hours of the polling day, but does not take the social media under its jurisdiction. In an attempt to make the upcoming elections fair and free, and increase the credibility of election process, these guidelines are laid by EC after a meeting with representatives from top social media networks. Under these provisions, the EC will work with Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) to detect and deter the violations of code of conduct given by them.
Keeping in mind that India has around 900 million voters and around 450 million use smartphones, social media becomes a vital platform for all political parties to pitch their leader as the ‘best’. For this purpose, since after the 2014 general elections, a 2-5% of the campaign budget is spent on campaigning on social media. Around 40% of youth in India is active on social media which makes it easy for political parties to target them through various ways.
According to Facebook’s Ad Library Report, around 30,457 advertisements were put on Facebook related to political topics, on which around ₹6.54 crores were spent. The ruling BJP is the first in the race of social media advertising with around 2,765 ads on its page called ‘My first vote for Modi’, followed by ‘Bharat ke Mann ki Baat’ with 2,439 ads and ‘NaMo Supporters’ with 2,153 ads. ‘Bharat ke Mann ki Baat’ has spent around ₹20 lakhs between March 10 and March 16 on these advertisements.
The top four searched terms were ‘BJP’, ‘Congress’, ‘Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ and ‘Congress President Rahul Gandhi’ according to this report. This shows how important social media becomes for the elections. Pro-BJP pages on Facebook have around 3,00,000 followers with ‘Nation with NaMo’ having 1.1 million followers.
After 2014 elections, social media has become a virtual battle ground for political parties as it becomes easier to target voters on social media through fake news, memes, organizing public events, etc. Fake news becomes the primary tool for any party as it spreads like wild fire and the fact checking required does not stand any grounds on social media, neither it is possible to trace the source of the false information. Adding to this social, media platforms become the easiest way to connect to the youth, who are real time as well as potential voters.
Among 500 million internet users, there are around 300 million Facebook users and around 200 million Whatsapp users for whom BJP spends around ₹4 crores and Congress spends around ₹48,000. In December assembly polls, BJP managed around 1,00,000 Whatsapp groups, where congress managed around 90,000 such groups in Rajasthan alone. For the upcoming elections, BJP aims to form a Whatsapp group chain of three groups each, for all 927,533 polling booths across the country as announced by Amit Shah in December 2018.
Social media is not only fast, but also reduces human labour as well as cost. On one hand, parties use advertising for their own leaders, they also try to negate the opposition leaders. The numerous memes and videos are shared by IT cells of the parties to popularize their leaders, as well as to vulgarize the image of opponents. The social media trolls then find their way to mainstream media, hence establishing falsified facts. Through various ways like these, social media creates as well as destroys ‘popular perception’, ultimately affecting the polling process.