Remove BJP Facebook Ads for Silence Period Violation: TMC Urges EC

Remove BJP Facebook Ads for Silence Period Violation: TMC Urges EC

On Tuesday, as over 18 crore Indians went to polls in over 2 lakh booths across 117 constituencies spread over 14 states and Union territories in phase 3 of Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has been running 600 ads on Facebook targeted at those voting today.

This not only amounts to a direct violation of the mandatory 48-hour ‘silence period’ till the end of polling but also illustrates the toothless nature of the “Code of Ethics” that social media platforms like Facebook and the Election commission had announced on 20 March.

The Trinamool Congress party (TMC) , on Tuesday, lodged an official complaint with the Election Commission of India, drawing its attention to the issue of this specific violation . In its letter, the party urged the commission to “look into the matter at the earliest and reprimand the BJP for violating the ethos of the elections.”

The 600 active ads – all running as video GIFs – consist of a variety of election manifesto promises from the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), fighting terrorism, to increasing jobs, access to drinking water, and pipe gas connections among others.

According to Facebook’s weekly political ads report, the BJP was the highest spender on election ads last week, having spent Rs 44 lakh between 14 and 20 April.

All the paid video promotions run by the BJP target at least one state – in many cases, multiple states – that went to vote on Tuesday, 23 April. 

This violation comes close on the heels of a similar violation by the ruling BJP party before and during the first phase of elections on 11 April as well. The Quint had reported that the party had spent Rs 51 lakh on 28 advertisements that ran across multiple states that had gone to polls in phase 1.

What the 48-Hour-Silence Period Mandates

Section 126 (1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, clearly states that “no person shall display to the public any election matter by means of cinematograph, television or other similar apparatus in any polling area during the period of forty-eight hours ending with the hour fixed for the conclusion of the poll for any election in that polling area.”

The 48-hour silence period for the third phase of elections commenced at 5 PM on Sunday and will be in place till the end of polling on Wednesday.

During this period no individual is allowed to propagate or display to the public any election-related content. While this provision has been implemented offline, it appears to have been brazenly flouted in the online space.
(Photo courtesy: Bharatiya Janata Party/ Facebook)

TMC Lodges Complaint With EC Against BJP

Within a few hours of the publication of this report, it emerged that the Trinamool Congress had officially complained to the EC about the BJP’s ads violating the mandatory silence period under Section 126 of the RP Act as well as the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).

The letter mentions, “It has been noticed that the BJP has shared/posted/uploaded short videos across their social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, WhatsApp, Bigo TV in the period of 48 hours leading up to these polls.”

“These videos include topics/schemes which the BJP has included in their election manifesto. It is clear that these videos are meant to sway the public in favour of the BJP.” 
Excerpt from Trinamoool Congress’ complaint letter to the EC

The party has urged the commission to ensure that all such “politically motivated” pictures/videos/ posts are removed immediately from all social media platforms as they are “intended or calculated to influence or affect the results” of the election.

According to the EC’s National Grievances Service portal, the complaint has been submitted to the MCC cell for “looking after the matter and taking all the initiative in this regard”.

BJP Spent Rs 44 Lakh On Facebook Ads In A Week

According to Facebook’s weekly political ads report, the BJP emerged as the highest spender on Facebook for a second week in a row. Between 14 April and 20 April, the ruling party spent Rs 44.32 lakh on 615 ads.

In the preceding week (7-13 April), the party had spent Rs 51 lakh on 28 advertisements.

Of the total Rs 1.32 crore that the BJP has spent on political ads on Facebook since February, it has spent over Rs 95 lakh in two weeks between 7 April and 20 April alone. 

A perusal of the advertisements active on 22 April revealed that almost each one was being shown in states like West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar – all of which will be voting on 23 April.

If in the first phase the ads ended with the line“Kamal ka button dabaye, BhaJaPa ko jitaye (Press the button with the lotus symbol, make the BJP victorious).” In the current ads for phase 3, the ads conclude with “phir ek baar Modi sarkar (once again, Modi government).
(Photo Courtesy: Bharatiya Janata Party/ Facebook)

EC Report on Silence Period Not Made Public

An important aspect of the Election Commission’s observations and decisions regarding the prevention of abuse of cyberspace during elections is the Umesh Sinha Committee Report.

The Election Commission, which mentions in its press release that “the task of maintaining campaign silence during last 48 hours before the conclusion of polling is becoming increasingly onerous in the light of the increasing influence of digital media,” had constituted a 14-member committee headed by Umesh Sinha, deputy election commissioner.

The Sinha Committee report, with important observations on regulating social media during this crucial 48-hour period of election silence, was submitted to the Election Commission on 10 January but never made public.

However, according to EC’s press release, the report’s scope of work includes impact of new media platforms and social media during the prohibitory period of 48 hours before the close of polling and its implication in view of the provisions of section 126.

What About Social Media ‘Code of Ethics’ That Pledged to Prevent This ?

So, why is the Umesh Sinha committee report so important?

Because its recommendations formed the crux of the social media platforms’ “Code of Ethics”.

On 20 March, social media platforms, including Facebook, had voluntarily agreed to take down political advertisements during the mandated 48-hour “silence period” before each of the seven phases of polling.

This, however, has not happened in any of the three phases of polling so far.

Seven social media giants – Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, Twitter, Sharechat, TikTok and BigoTV – had signed an eight-point “Code Of Ethics for the General Elections 2019” and presented it to Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora.

So, what is the objective of this code?

According to the document, the purpose is to “safeguard” the platforms “against misuse to vitiate the free and fair character” of the elections as well as to “identify measures” to “increase confidence in the electoral process”.

However, a perusal of the code of ethics and its provisions present a curious situation where the onus is on the Election Commission, and not Facebook.

(Photo Courtesy: Bharatiya Janata Party/ Facebook)
An advertisement promising the implementation of NRC if the BJP is re-eelcted.
Point 3 of the code says that a social media platform will act on violations of section 126 of the RP Act, provided it receives a valid legal request from the Election Commission for it. Therefore, the code says nothing about a social media platform acting on violations of its own accord.

The code further states that “These valid legal orders will be acknowledged and/or processed within 3 hours for violations reported under section 126 as per the Sinha Committee recommendations”.

The Quint has reached out to both Facebook and the Election Commission. This story will be updated as and when they respond.

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