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'Social media should be restricted before voting in India'


New Delhi: There are over 30 crore monthly active users on Facebook and more than 20 crore on WhatsApp in India. Even the Narendra Modi app alone can reach 1 crore people in a day.

With such a wide reach, should social media platforms be made to censor political content 48 hours ahead of polling as part of the strategy to maintain the so called "campaign silence"?

"Today, when social media is increasingly one of the most significant factors for impacting the electoral decisions of voters, it is important that the Election Commission take adequate steps to maintain campaign silence," Pavan Duggal, one of the nation's top cyber law experts, told IANS.

While the Election Commission of India recognises the impact social media can have on voters ahead of voting, the current legislation does not bar these platforms - many of which now allow live video streaming services -- from blocking political ads or propaganda.

These platforms can decide to do so voluntarily, but how effective such a measure would be remains doubtful.

In fact, in response to a petition to restrain any political advertisements, videos or messages before elections, Facebook last month told the Bombay High Court that it would not self-censor any content on its site.

It also raised practical difficulties of implementing such a rule as elections in different parts of India are held on different dates and often spread over a week.

The Election Commission last year formed a committee to review this section so that maintaining campaign silence can be made effective in the changed circumstances where social media yields considerable influence. The committee submitted its recommendation earlier this year.

A query to the poll panel on how it plans to stop social media platforms from broadcasting campaign material ahead of polling went unanswered.

"The Election Commission does not need to be a silent spectator," Duggal said.

"The Election Commission should invoke the provisions of the specific liability of the service providers in their capacity as intermediaries under the Information Technology Act, 2000," he said.

A parliamentary panel earlier this month raised grave concerns regarding Facebook's ability to prevent misuse of its platform during the upcoming Lok Sabha elections and to proactively help the security agencies.

The social media company admitted it doesn't "always get it right" regarding content moderation on its platform.

Last month, Colin Crowell, Global Vice President of Public Policy of Twitter, deposed before the BJP MP Anurag Thakur-led panel and discussed how it would address issues such as political bias and manipulation on its platform in real-time.

With threats of foreign interference in Indian elections and spread of fake news on social media looming large, specific, detailed, deterrent legal and penal consequences need to be specifically elaborated in the Act so as to provide criminal, legal and penal liability of the various social media platforms, Duggal informed.



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