The Election Commission instruction for political parties and candidates while using social media, in fact resonates an acknowledgement towards the assuming significance of social web in reconfiguring democratic engagements and deliberative politics. With the Commission instructions over social media use, now the question on the regulation of social media debate got a new vantage point, which already reverberated in Parliamentary deliberation.
Internet connection penetrating among over sixteen crore, more than eight crore people accessing social media sites, and studies confirming Facebook influence over 150 urban electoral constituencies in the forthcoming general election in 2014, new form of class antagonism has resurfaced at the trajectory of electoral politics and social media ecology in India.
Recognising this budding class relation in the electoral arithmetic of India, Election Commission (EC) has issued instructions to the chief electoral officers in States and Union Territories and Presidents and General Secretaries of Political Parties on 25 October 2013, regarding the use of social media sites in electoral environment.
Broadly classifying social media in to five categories, EC has taken a bold approach towards the ‘pre-certification’ (regulation?) for political advertisements in Internet. The directive to seek pre-certification of advertisements over Internet platforms makes the political class to be more cautious while migrating to connective spaces. The instruction also requires furnishing the expenditure for creating social media accounts, salaries paid to staff that maintains and operates it and cost incurred to Internet companies; all this falls under election expenses of a candidate.
However, the decision has kicked the holy cow again: freedom of speech. Regulating social media, the debate has been prevailing for sometimes now, ever since Government attempt to ban selected Internet sites following social media powered hate speech and consequent violence on Northeast people in south Indian States in 2012.
Discussion were in Parliament on August 2012 when morphed pictures used by tomfoolery makers in forms of multi-media messages (MMS) and social networking sites to buff communal tension targeting people from the northeast India in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune and Mumbai. In addition, social media has become fertile ground for breeding communal tensions, opines Akhilesh Yadav and confirmed its scrupulous configuration in inflaming communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, which killed nearly 50, and displaced 40,000,in Uttar Pradesh. Role of social media in glowing communal tension was one of the focal challenges haunting India, confirmed a summary of the chief Ministers’ speeches, at the National Integration Council meeting held on 23 September 2013.
The Practical issues
Certainly, the decision of the Commission to bring social media based electoral advertisement in tandem with political campaign in traditional media platforms such as TV and print carries some practical difficulties. Connective spaces are uncensored, and nebulous. Free space that goes unchecked and unmonitored is often everywhere in Internet. Social web that we count for advocacy, protest groups, social movements, social activists, subcultures and sometimes fan activism, life style activists, Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) and hobbyists have voluntarily understood as mechanics of political engagements and democratic engagements and will have enough conduits that somehow lead to electoral manipulations otherwise. Surely, this, in part, cannot bring under the radar.
Yet, the legal provision on campaigning via traditional media has now extended to social media. The practical issue raised pertains to the profiles and web pages created by “third person” for candidates and political parties concerned. However, EC reserves the matter for scrutiny under the table of Ministry of Communication and Information Technology.
Of course, only a minuscule fraction of the political tribe is online but their social media presence could influence voters, for instance, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi chat on social network Google+ and reportedly received questions and comments with millions watching across other media platforms. L.K. Advani shares political as well as personal thoughts through blog and Twitter profiles but the focus remains on politics.
Facebook is a pet device for many politicians to connect with their electorate and communicate with them, from big players like Mamata Banerjee to the young and not much known politicians like Jose K Mani from Kerala. Facebook has been more useful in the sense that youth access it from mobile.
Few of political class have taken a step further and created Twitter accounts. Talking about twitter, there is no dearth of politicians on Twitter.Narendra Modi, Mamta Banerjee, Sushma Swraj, etc., are few examples.From famous and well known political bigwigs like Shashi Tharoor who is illustrious for his tweets to Narendra Modi and from lesser known politicians like captain Gopinath to Meera Sanyal, Twitter has constituted a ‘twittersphere’ for the participatory engagements in politics.
Yet, another class of Indian political tribe who has taken a step further to connect with citizens online was websites and blogs. Narendra Modi, Omar Abdullah , and Nitish Kumar and a few more connect with internet users through expensive websites.
Political parties are not far behind in using social media sites. Congress, Bhartiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party etc., each of these and the remaining ones has their own websites, which not seen some years back. Several political parties have their official presence on social media sites in a bid to connect with the critical online youth population. If compared, the two major parties, i.e. the Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the latter clearly emerges as a winner.
Campaigns from the streets have moved to print, radios, TV and now onto the digital space and here it displays the party profiles, ideologies, their mission and vision and what the public can expect from them. At this point, they interact with the electorate.
The deeper debates
Nevertheless, the decision will highlight some deeper issues unnoticed. In fact, the real issue at stake is not freedom of speech, but speech and medium itself. The pompous side of digital democracy has spotted in by a host of incidence very recently in social media platforms. Therefore, the question comes, does our mouse click of any kind really facilitate political engagement and deliberate politics.
Communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar and violence on Northeast people reflected the vulnerability of social media spaces. The connective spaces do have no precise boundary in our cultural vocabularies and everyday life experiences regarding the doable/undoable and hate/love speech online. The instruction of the EC needs introspection in this background.
A spectacular reflection of connective spaces often provides us the other side of the story of digital democracy in India. In fact, Internet has done little to thicken political dialogue in India. Disaster or collateral damage, Internet has been in news for reasons that frowned people over the last few years.
New forms of control and domination prevail in connective spaces. Proprietary ownership is reflective of its capitalist character. A Google search with keywords ‘social media and Election Commission’ finds us 93,900,000 results (0.45 seconds), but the web link goes to big players, Economic Times, NDTV, Times of India, DNA, Business Standard, etc. Funneling web traffic to the platforms of big players by search engines like Google and Yahoo connective spaces now show cases the bourgeois character it has.
Links appear structured in Internet as well as filtered about how citizens search for political content and how leading search engines like Google and Yahoo funnel traffic to popular outlets. The connective space is iniquitous and unjust.
A new kind of “searcharchy” prevails in Internet and search engines are funneling traffics to the websites, news portals, and other web platforms of big players that are already the monopolies of our social space before the coming in of Internet, Google and Facebook. It resound what US Political scientist, Mathew Hindman, said in his book, The Myth of Digital democracy (2008).The public sphere as a discursive space in Internet is often doubtful since the space is already monopolised by corporate interest and search engines. Discussions are always mediated for the interest of proprietary owners and the Internet space is undergoing a new kind of structure and domination in India as said by Lawrence Lessig (2001) in his book, The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world.
Internet is the cultural space of winner-take-all symptom and the space has funneled by the interest of the holy cows. Political class uses their cultural and money power to redefine the codes in Internet and used a new kind of stenography to attract the digital voters. Film stars use their star value to sell out their products. Celebrities colonize the connective spaces to fortify their undisputed marketability. Celebrities, political classes, film stars, and traditional monopolies have configured a loose but unholy alliance in connective spaces.
Tens of thousands of anonymous and strange people do not get their alternate space here. No more solidarity resounds here in this space. On this background, the decision of the EC to put qualifications on the use of social websites during electoral campaign is timely, wise and appreciative. However, the curb on social media use during election time will not carry any restraint on freedom of speech. The instructions are rather qualitative. Of course, the decision will strengthen Indian democracy and it pinpoints the health of our polity.- See more at: http://www.merinews.com/article/social-media-under-fire-in-electoral-heat/15891480.shtml#sthash.5flfBbMp.dpuf