The Election Commission of India is just about to do something ridiculous if news reports are to be believed and not “twisted out of context.” According to a report, the Election watchdog is planning to bring “social media into the ambit of Paid News.”
There’s more, Akshay Rout- Director General of ECI was quoted as saying “Provisions of various legislations such as IT Act, Representation of the People’s Act and acts to regulate media would be used for issuing guidelines of controlling the social media.”
Now I come from Palakkad, the birthplace of former election commissioner T N Seshan who put an end to much of India’s election malpractices during his tenure between 1990 & 1996. Out of respect, I’ll put this mildly: this is plain stupid. It goes on to show that folks at the venerable institution have little understanding of Paid News in the context of Social Media.
Mainly, there are two forms of paid news. One: advertisements and endorsements masquerading as news, editorials etc. Second: refusal to cover certain things because the publisher is paid for silence (in journalistic parlance– spike the story).
Now here’s the thing: Social media is nothing like traditional forms of mass media. Holding social media companies accountable to journalistic ethics is simply not done. Mainly because they are technology platforms where everyone has equal rights and the owners don’t control opinions, real estate or air time like how newspapers or television channels do.
The question of paid news doesn’t arise here because advertisements can’t masquerade as news on Social media. A promoted tweet is clearly a promoted tweet. A Facebook advertisement, is clearly a Facebook advertisement.
A political party can buy advertisements from a social network. But that’s about it. You simply can’t tell Twitter or Facebook to tweak its algorithm to show tweets that are favorable to one candidate or unfavorable to another.
It is then up to individual users to dispense with opinions and consume it. Now there could be individuals with a large following on social media who can be paid to propagate a certain view point. This can fall into the realm of paid news, like it is meant in the traditional sense. Good luck controlling that. Because that would be infringing free speech. Even if you prove that money was exchanged, it can be always accounted for as payment in exchange of a multitude of services. Technically one can’t fault a tax paying private citizen for airing his views.
Yes, the election commission might want to keep a watch on is the amount of money politicians spend on these platforms to advertise. And that’s perfectly fine.
What do you think?