Government renews warnings to social media sites on polls

Published on Feb 22, 2019 11:34 PM IST

Prasad’s comments come at a time when Twitter is fighting charges of a perceived bias against right-wing handles on the micro-blogging platform. Earlier this month, Bharatiya Janata Party supporters alleged that Twitter was biased against them.

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New Delhi | ByKumar Uttam, Smriti Kak Ramachandran and Vidhi Choudhary

The government expects social media platforms to not show any bias, follow the norms laid down in the Constitution, and refrain from abusing the data of Indians to influence the upcoming general election, senior minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Friday.

The minister for electronics and information technology (and also law) added: “Any abuse of the data of Indians for collateral purpose to influence the election will not be appreciated. Let social media companies know this.”

Prasad’s comments come at a time when Twitter is fighting charges of a perceived bias against right-wing handles on the micro-blogging platform. Earlier this month, Bharatiya Janata Party supporters alleged that Twitter was biased against them.

A senior Twitter executive, Colin Cromwell, is meeting a parliamentary panel in this context on February 25. The panel on information technology has also summoned executives of Facebook and its units WhatsApp and Instagram to appear before it next month, as it seeks to check fake news and hate speech and curb political bias on social media ahead of the general election.

“We thank the Parliamentary Committee for its invitation to hear Twitter’s views on ‘Safeguarding citizen rights on social/online news media platforms.’ These are issues for all Internet services globally. Colin Crowell, Global Vice President of Public Policy for Twitter, will meet with the Committee on Monday,” Twitter said in a statement Friday.

The parliamentary committee on information technology earlier this month summoned Twitter’s chief executive officer Jack Dorsey to appear before it after declining to meet company representatives who didn’t have the authority to make decisions. The panel expressed concern over how algorithms are channelised in India, and also sought to know the details about the funding of advertisements that appear on the platform, a person familiar with the discussions said.

The committee, headed by Anurag Thakur, an MP from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has asked Facebook and its units to send their “CEO or member of global team with decisionmaking authority” to represent them at a March 6 meeting, said a person aware of the development, requesting anonymity.

Facebook, its messaging service WhatApp and photo sharing site Instagram said they had no immediate comments to offer.

Prasad said people can use social media to express their views, but there should not be a bias on the platform. “If any foreign agency or country will be using data of Indian to influence the election, that will not be acceptable.

According to a second person familiar with the situation, the parliamentary panel will also seek the opinion of the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) on whether these platforms qualify as media companies and can be brought under the ambit of laws applicable to media.

“MIB officials have not been asked to appear before the panel, but they will be asked to submit their response going forward. The panel needs clarity,” the second person said on condition of anonymity.

Social media platforms claim they are intermediaries and not media companies.

“Social Media platforms need to take stringent measures to check the spread of fake news, hate speech and address concerns of election interference globally,” the panel is learnt to have told Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp.

The government is working on a strategy to enforce campaign silence on social media 48 hours before polls, as suggested by the parliamentary panel on IT. The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) is considering several options, including regulation through local internet service providers and voluntary compliance by social media platforms, two officials with direct knowledge of the matter said on condition of anonymity, according to the report.

In a statement released on February 7, it said ads referencing political figures, political parties and elections on the social networking site in India will now carry disclaimers about who published and paid for the it. Facebook also said that from February 21, only advertisers who have the required authorisations and disclosed who is responsible for an ad will be allowed to run political ads in India.

In a separate statement on Thursday, Twitter said it had set up a an “internal cross functional elections group” in its efforts to protect the integrity of the electoral process in the country.

Compared to the Indian user bases of Facebook (300 million) and its messaging app WhatsApp (over 230 million), Twitter’s Indian base of around 35 million is small, but it counts the country’s most influential people, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among its users.

Political groups campaigning on Twitter in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls have to register with the social media platform as part of tougher advertising rules, designed to protect elections from foreign interference. Guidelines for Indian political advertisers include a registration certificate by the Election Commission of India for political parties. Individuals or candidates contesting elections who want to publish ads on Twitter will need a government ID and receipt of nomination and notice of scrutiny.

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