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Manipulated Twitter trends could be treated as political ads during elections in future: Report

We missed this earlier: Trends on Twitter, propagated using hashtags, could be treated as political advertisements during elections, and be subjected to media certification and monitoring committee (MCMC) regulations of the Election Commission of India, reported the Times of India.

A panel set up by the ECI to study poll expenditure limits and expenditure monitoring mechanisms, also reportedly recommended the creation of a separate social media monitoring cell in district election officers’ (DEO) offices. These monitoring cells will track political advertisements on social media during polls, and report them to the expenditure observer.

The report has also recommended that DEO offices engage external consultants to develop these monitoring solutions, and build a dashboard to track actions on disclosures. Sources told the publication that the EC has accepted these recommendations. A group of senior EC officials, including Deputy Election Commissioner Umesh Sinha, has been asked to work out on modalities for the plan. However, these new norms will not apply to the current polls scheduled in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, an official told the publication.

MediaNama has sent queries to the ECI and Sinha’s office. They couldn’t be reached for comment despite several attempts. This post will be updated if we receive any response. We have also filed an RTI for the interim and final reports.

Google, Facebook and Twitter: The expert committee has reportedly found that Facebook (including Facebook and Instagram), Google (Google ads and YouTube) and Twitter are being used for political campaigns. It noted that there is only a “thin line” between political advertisements and content that is permitted. Readers should note that Twitter has banned all political advertising since 2019. Facebook, too, had taken similar steps in the US during the country’s recent presidential elections, albeit temporary in nature.

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Twitter trends need coordination: The committee reportedly found Twitter to be a place for “highly-polarised narratives”, with the presence of political personalities, and hence a ripe target for monitoring expenditure. It said that trending a hashtag indicated “enormous” coordination among party workers which isn’t possible without an elaborate social media cell or by using bot accounts. For these reasons, it said, a hashtag or trend needs to be treated as political advertisements by the ECI.

For expenditure monitoring, the committee also suggested the use of “botometer” — a machine learning-based algorithm that can assess an account’s likeliness of being a bot.

Use stats provided by Facebook, Google, Twitter: The committee is also reported have suggested estimating the ad spend amounts and total views of video ads be used to roughly estimate the amount of money spent by political campaigns on these platforms. It also suggested that the use of Instagram, Bing Ads and WhatsApp Business also be accounted for in expenditure by using their publicly-available rate cards.

MediaNama’s take: Addressing coordinated online behaviour is a good move

Spending by political parties on internet platforms has been a grey area in recent times, with relatively fewer regulations existing so far. In the absence of these regulations, the companies have been prompted by civil society to bring in more transparency into the process. In 2019, ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Google released a library of political ads it had carried so far. Facebook, too, has a similar library.

The ECI too, in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, made social media ads accountable as campaign spending, but that still left out manipulation of social media through coordinated behaviour. There have been numerous reports of political parties using their offline (party workers, sympathisers) and online (bots) resources to manipulate trends on a particular day. For instance, bots were reportedly used to hijack Twitter trends during a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tamil Nadu in February 2019. More recently, The Quint found that bots were being used to spread misinformation ahead of the West Bengal elections scheduled next month.

It remains to be seen how effective the monitoring mechanisms will be, especially if DEOs are expected to get these systems built themselves. But, this is a step in the right direction and signifies that the ECI — a constitutional and independent body — has taken cognizance of this issue.

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