In 10 days, Karnataka, one of India’s richest and fastest-growing states, will hold elections to its legislative assembly. Its 65 million population places it alongside the UK, France or Italy in size. In 2019, the whole of India will go to the polls to elect members to its parliament. Given the proven and documented instances of social media and the internet being used maliciously to target voters from countries like the US, France, Britain, Germany, and Norway, elections to the world’s largest and most raucous democracy would seem like the next stop for this virus.

And that the Indian government and constitutional authorities are well prepared to handle anything untoward, given their benefit of hindsight from observing other countries. So, perhaps they said this?

“…we will do our part not only to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections…”

“…we will hire thousands of more people. We’re committed to getting this done in time for the critical months before the elections in India next year….”

No. Mark Zuckerberg made the above statement (edited) before the US Congress.

What about Indian authorities?

It’s complicated.

We have met the enemy, and it’s us

With over 240 million and 200 million Facebook and WhatsApp users, respectively, India is the largest user base for Facebook globally. Which means that the tactics used to maliciously influence elections in western countries are still relevant in India.

(a) Flooding the internet with political propaganda 

(b) Profiling and targeting individual voters

(c) Harassment and intimidation of opponents

But a detailed analysis of official Indian efforts to counter the threat of “weaponised” social media returns a fairly slim list. The Election Commission (EC), the constitutional body charged with holding and safeguarding elections, constituted a committee in January 2018.

In addition to this, there is a parliamentary standing committee for information technology (IT) which has announced hearings after the Cambridge Analytica controversy. It has held two hearings till now on the issue. Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s IT minister, has threatened to summon Mark Zuckerberg to India, and subsequently, his ministry has issued a notice to Facebook to disclose details of Indian users impacted by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

That, really, is it.

The EC is usually tasked with the regulation of elections, so it is not a general regulator of political parties. Its role is primarily in the conduct of elections. This presents unique challenges such as the enforcement of the model code of conduct which regulates political speech and expenses only starts from the schedule of the polling dates. 

AUTHOR

Venkat Ananth

Venkat is currently in his tenth year in journalism. Prior to The Ken, he was Deputy Content Editor at Mint as part of the newspaper’s digital team. He also wrote in-depth features on the business of sport for the newspaper. His earlier assignments include Yahoo! (as a columnist) and the Hindustan Times, where he began his career. Born in Mumbai, Venkat holds a Bachelor of Mass Media (Journalism) degree from SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai and a Master of Arts degree in International Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London. He currently resides in New Delhi, where he moved nearly five years ago.

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