Facebook and Google's Answer to Unlawful Political Advertising: General Elections 2019 Edition

How social media platforms respond to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora's call for stringent social media monitoring policies in the days leading up to India's General Elections 2019.

Ashwarya Shukla

The world’s largest democracy, with over 90 crore voting citizens, will be at the centre of attention from the eyes of millions as it hosts the world’s largest democratic elections in April 2019. Elections, in India, are a long-standing public event fuelled by heavy expenses, false information and the accompaniment of little to no transparency. The recent events leading up to the general elections, rolling out from April 11, come bearing from nods of both encouragement and disapproval at the Indian government. 

Keeping aside all political agendas, the most significant challenges to tackle this time around is the unlawful political advertising with social media platforms having an instrumental role to play. On Sunday, March 10, the Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora acknowledged the influential role social media platforms played during elections and implemented stringent monitoring policies for the same. 

The CEC primarily tackled the need for transparency of expenditures incurred during political advertising on these networking platforms; it also addressed the need for preventative measures that mitigate the risks of spreading fake news and misinformation as attempts to dissuade public opinions. The following are the said efforts being undertaken to keep the purity of 2019 general elections intact:

• The media monitoring and certification committee will now include a social media expert.

• Each, involved in political advertisements on social media platforms, will require a pre-certification from the commission for the ad he/she wishes to run.

• Each candidate will also be asked to provide the details of his/her social media accounts to the commission.

• Online campaign expenditures will now, indefinitely, have to be included in the election expenditure account, to maintain utmost transparency.

• Provisions of the model code of conduct, laid down by the Election Commission, will also be extended to the content posted by candidates or parties on social media.

• India’s election watchdog will flag political advertisements as well account amount spent to keep track.

In the wake of 2013 US elections, the responsibility of social media platforms and the role they play during elections became loud and clear. Apart from the CEC rolling out monitoring policies, these platforms have been taking stringent actions to regulate the same ever since.

Facebook, Twitter and Google make up almost half of the political advertising expenditures. India accounts for 300 million Facebook users, and as a response to one of the big user bases in a country, Facebook contributed to ethical elections by embarking on an offline policy process that helps identify locations and advertisers in India. Facebook also rolled out the mandatory submission of legal documentation and identity proofs from advertisers, if they wish to continue political advertising.

Facebook will also be setting up war rooms comprising of nearly 40 teams to try and address some of the problems as well as implementing a 48-hour silence period on their platforms in days leading up to the elections. The silence period, two days before the voting day, will allow the voter to make up his/her mind calmly without being a victim to election-related misinformation.

Shivnath Thukral, Facebook’s Director of Public Policy in India and South Asia, is also running the largest fact-checking partner program in India and has recently taken down almost 2 billion fake accounts with its ML algorithms and humans.

To combat the possible misuse and ensure full transparency, Google (adopting a similar strategy to its strategy in the US with ProPublica) established a platform that reflects the incurred expenditure on the platform with the Election Commission. This report, along with a searchable Political Ads Library acts as a one-stop shop for information about the buyers of election ads on Google’s platforms. 

While the big leagues are undertaking efforts to ensure the purity of general elections remains untainted, there are still issues that need to be addressed for a fool-proof general election 2019.

• WhatsApp hosts over 250 million users and TikTok, reportedly, hosts about 50 million users, yet there lacks some regulation. WhatsApp, considered one of the most influential platforms, has yet to disclose its answer to the wrongful spread of misinformation, to further a political agenda, on its platform. 

• Unauthorised use of citizen data for political gains and swinging opinions, in particular, favour, still has not been addressed. After the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, this occurrence serves as a major lesson in the need to secure user data. An election of this scale is all the more reason to be ruling policy features that secure citizen data and prevent its unauthorised use.

• The implementation of war rooms and silence periods can make it hard for parties to message/inform online users. A differentiated policy that effectively allows communication while restraining the misuse of the platform is needed.

Only the elections and results reached will unveil how social media platforms weighed in for a smooth voting process. 

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