Absence of law on social media an issue: Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa

Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa
The Election Commission (EC) might have to deal with cases of surrogate advertising in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, says Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa. In an interaction with , Lavasa says there is no doubt on the credibility of electronic voting machines (EVMs), and that all social media platforms have given their commitment to the EC to take steps towards ensuring free and fair elections. Edited excerpts:

How are you going to deal with surrogate advertising, especially on social media? How can you tell private people not to do this type of advertising, without impinging on their freedom of expression?

What we have been able to do is to obtain from these social media platforms certain commitments, which they have undertaken to fulfil. First, they will appoint their own vigilance personnel. Second, they will employ tools for fact-checking, and third, whenever a complaint is given to them, they will immediately get into action and either remove that content or take whatever action is required to be taken in accordance with their policy or our directions. Also, they will not take any political advertisement that has not been certified by the EC. So every political advertisement is supposed to carry a pre-certification number, which they will satisfy themselves about before uploading. The expenditure incurred in those forms part of the political expense incurred by a candidate or political party.

If you have a personal social media account but are repeating an advertisement of a party or a candidate which is pre-certified, then you can easily be blocked because you are using exactly the same ad. 

I can say this is my freedom of expression to support a candidate. That is a question the EC will have to deal with.

That happens because there is an absence of law governing social media and elections. This matter is already before the Bombay High Court. Let us see what the verdict of the court is in this matter.

There has been a lot of noise about the credibility of EVMs, and aspersions have been cast on the EC’s independence. How would you respond to that?

It is a free country, people are free to say whatever they want. I don’t think it is for the EC to keep issuing statements regarding its independence. We are doing a job according to the rulebook. At the same time, our expectation is that people should make informed comments and not those which have no basis as far as the ground realities are concerned.

EVMs have been in use for two decades. And so many elections have been held with them. So far, nobody has been able to prove tampering of EVMs. There have been more than 30 cases filed in courts around the country. All these courts have looked into various allegations. They even had the assistance of some technical experts, and in each of those cases where verdict has been pronounced, no court has made any adverse comment on the integrity of the machine. Yes, there can be malfunction, for which the EC has a very elaborate arrangement.

There are a number of grievance mechanisms which have been rolled out. They can use any form of communication to bring it to the notice of the district authority or the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) of the EC. There are MCMC committees in every district and we have instructed that all of them should have a social media expert. That committee will look into the nature of the complaint and the content against which an objection has been raised. The platforms have given a commitment that whenever they receive a complaint from the EC authorities, they will immediately act on it. Plus there is the C-Vigil app.

The expenditure limit for the Lok Sabha elections, of Rs 70 lakh per candidate, is quite unrealistic. How will the EC enforce something like that?

This limit is being strictly enforced by the EC. We have a system of expenditure observers. There are strict rules about maintaining daily accounts and then how those accounts have to be tallied on a daily basis. At the end of elections, candidates are required to file their detailed expenditure statements. If you find that there is any use of inducement and distribution of freebies, there are flying squads and static surveillance units, which are deployed in all districts, more so in areas which are classified as expenditure-sensitive. This time we will be deploying more than 700 expenditure observers around the country.

Will the ‘silent period’ before polling also apply to the personal social media accounts of ministers and members of a political party?

The silence period of 48 hours will apply to social media as well. On your private account, if what you are saying is a violation of the model code of conduct, then it will attract action.

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