Should the model code of conduct be extended to campaigns on social media?
Several Twitter-friendly politicians, from Ashok Gehlot to Narendra Modi, have been targeted for “buying” followers, and many a slanging match has erupted, in 140 characters or less, between, if not the politicians themselves, their loyal supporters. Whether or not social media will have an impact on the upcoming assembly and Lok Sabha elections in terms of influencing voting behaviour, it is clear that political parties and leaders consider Facebook and Twitter to be essential to their campaign strategies.
By its very nature, social media is resistant to attempts to monitor and control, and its newness has meant that it is relatively ungoverned. Indeed, most countries do not impose special restrictions on campaigning on social media, except, as in Kenya’s case, to prevent post-election violence. In India, the Election Commission is now reportedly considering issuing a circular on extending the model code of conduct to political campaigns on social media. As more and more politicians turn towards the unmediated forums offered by the likes of Twitter and Facebook to connect with their publics, questions over what, if any, limitations ought to be imposed on the use of social media are understandable. In its most specific form — party and candidate expenditure on social media campaigns — the EC will likely be able to ensure compliance to the code of conduct. But what about the code’s other requirements?
For instance, what about the armies of supporters of each party that throng social media, dominating conversation and provoking acrimonious exchanges? Will retweets and shares by followers be considered part of a party’s campaign? How will the EC deal with third party posts, or fake accounts? The EC has come a long way, from being a sleepy institution to the watchdog of democracy that it is today, and this credibility has been hard won. Its moral authority, not statutory backing, has compelled parties to abide by the model code. It could risk diluting its reputation by wading into arenas it cannot possibly effectively control.