Is the Election Commission of India (ECI) adequately vigilant in preventing the social media from interfering in India’s electoral process?

election commission of india

To

Shri Rajiv Kumar

Chief Election Commissioner

Election Commission of India (ECI)

 

Shri A C Pandey

Election Commissioner

ECI

 

Shri Arun Goel

Election Commissioner

ECI

 

Dear S/Shri Rajiv Kumar/ Pandey/ Goel,

I have addressed you a letter on 7-1-2022 (https://countercurrents.org/2023/01/use-of-remote-evms-for-migrants-eci-should-set-its-house-in-order/), in connection with the proposed introduction of remote EVMs for enfranchising migrant voters and, in that connection, I had raised concerns about the role of the ECI, its effectiveness and credibility, as a Constitutional authority responsible for conducting elections in a free and a fair manner. I hope that the Commission has appreciated the seriousness of the issues I had raised and would satisfactorily respond to those issues in the public domain.

In continuation, I wish to raise yet another serious concern about the willingness and ability of the ECI to prevent both domestic and overseas social media platforms from interfering in India’s elections.

In this connection, I invite your attention to an analytical study made in March, 2022 by Reporters Collective, an investigative journalist group (https://www.reporters-collective.in/projects/eyeballpolitics-facebook-investigation) on how Facebook, a USA-based social networking agency, allowed a firm funded by the Reliance Group, to publish surrogate advertisements in favour of the national political party in power at the Centre and help it reach a wider audience.The study shows the scale and the effect of that party’s surrogate advertising ecosystem and how “even Facebook’s algorithms – instructions and rules coded in software” provide an upper hand to that party over its competitors during elections.

The study, based on a fairly comprehensive analysis, sums up the extent of Facebook’s interference in the electoral processes in India as follows:

“The Collective’s year-long investigation found that an ecosystem of proxy advertisers is flourishing on Facebook, bypassing election laws, breaking Facebook’s own rules and undercutting the political level-playing field. Surrogate advertisements worth more than 58 million rupees, most of which promoted BJP, denigrated opposition and seeded false narratives, got a whopping 1.3 billion views for a period of 22 months, almost equal to the advertisements officially placed by BJP. They helped double BJP’s visibility without the party having to take responsibility for the content or the expenditure related to their advertisements”

If what the above cited study has thus revealed is true, it is a matter of serious concern for the political parties of all hues in India, the Parliament and the public at large, as it implies, in no unclear terms, that a foreign social media platform, joining hands with a domestic private corporate agency, had blatantly interfered with the electoral processes in India, disturbing the level-playing ground in elections in favour of the party in power, in violation of the letter and the spirit of the laws and the regulations on elections and the sanctity and the integrity of the election system.

Such an interference in the electoral system by a foreign agency and a domestic corporate entity amounts to an indirect, undisclosed expenditure on electioneering in favour of one political party, in violation of the requirement of transparency, mandated by Article 19 of the Constitution. More important than this is the disturbing and the far reaching implication of this for India’s electoral system, which has apparently become highly vulnerable to foreign interference, against the national interest.

There are seven important questions that arise from this.

  1. If the ECI has already come across the above study, what action had been initiated by it, to get the factual details provided by the study investigated independently by an ECI-monitored evaluation mechanism, so as to get to the root of the matter and initiate action against the foreign agency, the domestic corporate entity and the concerned political party, if the latter had been complicit?
  2. If the ECI had seen the study but found itself ill-equipped under the existing election laws to proceed against the foreign agency and others, it ought to have submitted a proposal to the President and the Parliament to strengthen the election laws suitably to enable the Commission to take necessary action. Such action ought to have been initiated in March/April, 2022 itself.
  3. In the alternative, nothing prevented the Commission from proactively approaching the Hon’ble Supreme Court, seeking a direction to the government agencies to take action urgently against the foreign agency, pending strengthening of the election laws.
  4. If the ECI had not come across the above cited study, does it imply that the Commission is ill-equipped to monitor crucial developments taking place that adversely impact the integrity of the electoral process? If that is so, it raises concerns about the ability and the capacity of the ECI to conduct elections in a free and a fair manner, as mandated by the Constitution and the election laws.
  5. If the ECI had indeed become aware of the study in question but had not chosen to investigate it, it raises serious concerns about the role of the Commission itself and its impartiality, which is a matter on which the legislature and the public at large need to discuss and debate, as willful inaction on the part of the Commission and unfettered interference by foreign agencies in the country’s elections are highly detrimental to the national interest.
  6. One is not sure whether foreign social media platforms had continued to interfere in elections that took place subsequent to March, 2022. Unless adequately regulated, they would effectively pose a serious threat to India’s democratic processes.
  7. Overseas social media platforms, Meta (promoter of Facebook) and Twitter, in defiance of the domestic labour laws, have also retrenched thousands of Indian technical personnel in the recent times (https://www.livemint.com/technology/tech-news/facebook-meta-layoffs-indian-techies-fired-after-2-3-days-of-joining-the-firm-11668124113538.htmlhttps://www.hindustantimes.com/cities/mumbai-news/twitter-downsizes-india-team-as-part-of-its-3800-jobs-cull-globally-101667587083035.html), with the concerned regulatory agencies at the Centre remaining inactive. Has the Cente’s inaction been merely on account of it’s indifference or, as a result of connivance with the overseas agencies as a quid pro quo for helping the concerned political party in elections?

As a concerned citizen, I feel intensely distressed that the ECI should remain a passive (or active?) spectator to foreign agencies openly interfering in the country’s elections and tilting the level-playing ground among the political parties, whichever way they wish to.

In the USA, where many of these social media agencies are located, when questions arose about their impact on national security, the US Senate committee on national security summoned the agencies’ senior representatives to appear before them and testify on their role (https://www.businessworld.in/article/Social-Media-Platforms-To-Testify-At-US-Senate-Homeland-Security-Hearing/09-09-2022-445863/). There is no reason as to why the Indian Parliament should not intervene and safeguard the national interest in a similar manner.

If the Commission fails to respond to this letter, without making an appropriate disclosure in the public domain on answers to the above seven concerns, it will lead to an adverse inference being drawn on the Commission’s role and effectiveness in conducting elections in a free and a fair manner.

May I remind you once again that the public trust reposed in the Commission’s role and effectiveness would crucially depend on how it responds to these concerns?

Regards,

Yours sincerely,

E A S Sarma

Former Secretary to Govt of India

Visakhapatnam

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