Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Can Strict Laws Rein in Social Media during Polls?

(Image Source: theasiadialogue.com)
By Deepit Mudaliar,

In India, there are nearly 400 million Internet users who are easily accessible to the political party campaigners through Facebook and WhatsApp. There is a huge potential for social media to alter the course of election campaigns. A sensational content stirs the mind and can help false news spread in no time.

Even a minor swing of over two per cent is enough to influence the electoral outcome. The recently held general elections were greatly influenced by the use of social media during campaigning. The Election Commission (EC) of India had to dig deep into the existing legislations to provide for adequate measures to control and prevent the misuse of the medium.

Social media as a tool of empowerment has been used by major political parties who have unleashed media campaigns all over the world. For example, Donald Trump’s controversial but highly effective digital campaign for the 2016 presidential elections. The BJP’s social media election campaign in 2014 swayed the youth, mostly first-time voters in the age group of 18–23 and comprising around 150 million voters. This had a direct effect on nearly 40 per cent of the seats in the 2014 elections and more than 60 per cent in the 2019 elections.

Social media is extensively used as a hate tool for circulating videos and fake manufactured news items. The Dadri mob lynching in 2015 is a sad example of how social media was used to instigate hate.

Two international events worth mentioning are the manipulative techniques used through WhatsApp for targeting opponents and supporting the presidential candidate in Brazil and the Russian government interference in the US presidential elections of 2016.

In India, the EC has certain legislations to curb the ill-effects of social media. The Information Technology Act, 2000 is the primary law dealing with cybercrime and e-commerce. Some controversial sections of the Act, like the Section 66A which prescribes punishment for sending offensive messages, was found to be unconstitutional and repealed in 2016. Section 69 of the Act gave -authorities the power of interception, monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource. While this is seen as a violation of the fundamental right to privacy by some, the Ministry of Home Affairs has claimed its validity on the grounds of national security. Implementation aspects of this act are still unclear, especially handling end-to-end encryption and decryption at device level in WhatsApp and Blackberry messages. A draft amendment has been issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) and is being evaluated.

The National Cyber Security Policy of 2013 aims at creating a secure computing environment for electronic transactions, for protecting the public and private infrastructure from cyber-attacks and safeguard personal, financial and banking information. It also encourages wider usage of Public Key
Infrastructure (PKI) for trusted communication and transactions. However, there is no mechanism yet in place for obtaining strategic information regarding threats to the infrastructure. There is no development on public- private partnerships and on greater civil-military cooperation. Cyber security,
privacy and civil rights are not clearly dealt with within the policy framework. Data collection and processing procedures too are not clearly mentioned. A well-crafted, long-term cyber security policy is a critical part of Indian electioneering.

The EC should also address the issue of re-designating its election infrastructure to “critical information infrastructure” (CII) under the Information Technology Act, 2000. This will also help enable regular coordination between the national security establishment and the cyber security advisories.

The poll body did begin well in dealing with the social media at the onset of the Lok Sabha election campaigning. It insisted pre-certification for any political advisory during the campaign duration and published a social media code of ethics in consultation with top social media companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter for the elections. It also launched a smartphone app cVIGIL to capture code of conduct. Yet, major challenges like monitoring fake news in local languages and dealing with the overwhelming number of social media users remain. Even if the EC had taken enough measures to curb social media usage, a sudden burst of inflammatory messages over a matter of a week
would have been difficult to restrict considering the sheer volume (200 million WhatsApp users).

The EC as well as other regulatory bodies will have to adopt the use of some superior artificial intelligence-based technology where detection and intervention is much faster and effective. Also, for the proper implementation of the Cyber Security Policy, the gaps should be identified first and filled in a timely manner. The existing Information Technology Act, 2000 and the National Cyber Security Policy, 2013 need to be reviewed for the provisions, their sufficiency and relevance with rapidly changing technology.

Technology is only set to improve, and along with it come challenges and threats. The need to keep a constant check, proper security measures and strengthening the legislations must be a continuous process for the sake of a healthy democracy and a robust election mechanism.

(Deepit Mudaliar was a Research Intern at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author is personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research)

1. Tikku, Aloke. September 2016. SC scrapped it, but thousands held last year under dead cyber law. https://wwww.hindustantimes.com/india- news/despite-sc-order-thousands-booked-under-scrapped-section-66a- of-it-act/.
2. Patil, Sameer. 18 April2019. The cyber security imperative for India’s elections.https://www.gatewayhouse.in/cyber-security-india-election/.
3. Nalon, Tai. 1 November 2018. Did WhatsApp help Bolsonaro win the Brazilian presidency?
4. Alarming lessons from Facebook's push to stop fake news in India. May 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/internet/alarming- lessons-from-facebooks-push-to-stop-fake-news-in-india/.
5. Comments/suggestions invited on Draft of “The Information Technology [Intermediary Guidelines (Amendment) Rules]. 2018. https://www.meity.gov.in/content/comments-suggestions-invited-draft-

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