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Hashtags should be treated as political ads, says panel

(This story originally appeared in on Mar 02, 2021)

NEW DELHI: ‘Hashtag’ trends on Twitter — a place for ‘highly-polarised political narratives’ — may be treated as political ads during the election process and be subjected to media certification and monitoring committee (MCMC) regulations of the Election Commission, an expert committee set up by the poll panel last year has recommended.

The panel, set up under ex-IRS officer Harish Kumar to review poll expenditure limits and expenditure monitoring mechanisms, in its interim report submitted to the EC on January 24 has also called for the creation of a separate social media monitoring cell in the district election officer’s (DEO) office to track political ads on social media during polls, and report them to the expenditure observer.

“IT cells of different political parties often use ‘bots’ to create trends on social media. Hashtags used for this purpose are part of a manufactured campaign where expenditure is involved. It won’t be easy to figure out how much. Nonetheless, they must be considered as part of election expenses as suggested by the expert panel.”

— Times View

It recommended the DEO’s office be permitted to engage external consultants or software development firms to develop and deploy suitable social media monitoring solutions and build a dashboard to track the progress of action taken on the discovery of social media expenditure.

According to sources, the EC has accepted the recommendations. As per the expert committee, three key platforms are used for political campaigns — Google (including Google ads and YouTube), Facebook (including Facebook and Instagram) and Twitter. Though Twitter had explicitly forbidden carrying out political advertising in November 2019, the panel said there was a thin line between political advertisements and issues that are permitted.

EC may treat Twitter hashtags as ads for election campaigns

Noting that Twitter is a place for “highly-polarised narratives”, the panel said this made it an important forum for campaigning. It said Twitter, with around 3.4 crore users in India, was a useful target for expenditure monitoring. Hashtags trending on Twitter are often targeted by opposing political groups for showcasing their control on the narrative.

Explaining that trending a hashtag indicated “enormous” coordination among party workers and a candidate’s sympathisers, the panel said this was not possible without an elaborate social media cell or ‘illegal’ hiring of bot accounts. The panel suggested that a Twitter hashtag or trend be treated as a political ad and may be covered under the MCMC regulations. It suggested that open source tools like botometers be used to check a Twitter account that is supporting the campaign hashtag. This would help the expenditure monitoring team in discovering the use of underground services for campaigning under the guise of hashtags on Twitter.

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