Ever since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, new media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, have become political battlegrounds. These spaces of electioneering have, however, remained unregulated because the Representation of People Act (RPA), 1951, does not cover social media. On Wednesday, the Election Commission (EC) and Internet and Mobile Association of India - the body that represents social media firms - took a decisive step towards plugging this gap. The two agencies agreed on a Code of Ethics, which social media outfits will follow during the Lok Sabha elections. The Code that came into effect on March 20 ticks several boxes - it emphasises transparency and stresses on measures to "prevent abuse of social media platforms". However, as Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora put it, "the document should be seen as a work in progress". Since adherence to the Code is voluntary, much will depend on the measures taken by inpidual social media outfits to put the document's guidelines into practice.
Section 126 of the RPA prohibits political parties and candidates from campaigning in the two days before voting. In January, an EC panel suggested bringing social media platforms under the Act's ambit so that voters are "afforded a period of reflection". The panel suggested that these new media platforms should abide by the EC's guidelines about taking down "objectionable content". Social media outfits, however, did not agree with the recommendation that such content "be taken down within three hours of a notice". It's reassuring that the Code, put in place on Wednesday, addresses the EC's concerns: "Valid legal orders will be acknowledged and/ or processed within three hours for violations reported under Section 126". Also welcome is the Code's insistence on "transparency in paid political advertisements". Any political advertisement posted without the EC's certification and notified as such by the EC will be acted upon expeditiously, the Code says.
The Code asks social media firms to train the EC's nodal officers on how their "platforms work and on mechanisms for sending requests on dealing with offensive material". These companies will also develop a "reporting mechanism" through which the poll watchdog can inform the platforms about "potential violations of Section 126". The Code's success will depend, in large measure, on how these channels of communication work. In the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, the conduct of the social media firms - and the EC - will be watched.