26th April 2019, By Siddharth Mehta, Copysupervisor

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In less than a week Indians go to poll. With an estimated 900 million citizens expected to vote, how critical has Social Media been to the parties and the people?

Social media as a channel to advertise and advocate has gained momentum in India, especially after the 2014 elections. Being one of the largest online markets in the world, political parties have upped the ante through apps, websites, blogs and social networking sites to make political communications a part of every citizen’s life.

If the largest voting event with an estimated 900 million Indians expected to vote for 543 parliamentarians from 930,000 polling booths in 2019 isn’t enough, the vast number of candidates from numerous parties along with their opinions, concerns and stakes are complicating matters.

Here comes the communications eminence of social media. Aided by affordable 4G internet connection and smartphones, social media has been a blessing for parties who can save on time, resources, and efforts of physical coverage of these areas by reaching out to more voters on a personal level, in an interactive format.

Four Year Social Media Shift

The past four years has seen a drastic shift in social media content and tactics by political parties. Using technology and analytics, including SAP, Microsoft, digital PR and advertising agencies, candidates have captured voter profiles at booth level and tailored strategies accordingly.

All these political content and tactics being advertised online has impacted the democracy. While user generated views has given people from rural to urban areas a direct entry into forming a political opinion and dissemination; on the other hand, it has enabled quick and pervasive spread of polarising politics. Especially to those who have excessive funds. While social media has mobilised supporters, the flip side is that it can trigger communal conflict rapidly.

New rules of the game

In a first, the Election Commission (EC) of India has published a social media code of ethics for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, ShareChat, and TikTok are some of the platforms under regulation.

What does the social media code of ethics say?

The Election Commission says this code of ethics is developed to ensure free and fair elections this time around. Under these guidelines, social media platforms will facilitate freedom of expression and allow access to information on electoral matters. They are also asked to undertake workshops to spread awareness of electoral conduct laws.

In an effort to curb foreign intervention in India’s elections and create a culture of transparency in campaign funding, the two social media giants debuted special procedures related to buying ads on their platforms.

Both companies I.e Facebook and Google require government-issued registration documents for parties and candidates wanting to buy ads for their campaigns. They must also acquire a pre-certificate issued by the EC.

Google asks for extra verification once the ad buyer indicates that the ad is political. Facebook asks its advertisers to use their discretion while buying ads. Other platforms like Twitter have also cooperated with the government for ethics regulation leading up to the Lok Sabha elections.

Why has EC implemented this code of ethics?

These precautionary measures come amid the ongoing back and forth over the allegation of possible foreign intervention in the US Presidential election in 2016.

The cooperation between the Indian government and private social media platforms is a positive development as both sides seem invested in prioritising verifiable information and confidence in the electoral process.

Why should you vote?

We know that recent political developments in India hasn’t been pleasant. For several years, our country has been fighting corruption, volatile economy and unclear foreign policy. Election after election, we’ve seen governments fail and break their promises. However, not casting your vote will not help, but only make the situation worse. As a responsible citizen of India, it is our duty to make informed decisions and choose the best from what has been presented to us. With reforms like Right to Reject gaining support, it won’t be long before the election system is improved.

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