Elections 2019
Hyderabad-based FSMI has asked the EC to look into the money spent on online political campaigns by political parties contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

A call to monitor online election spending by political parties contesting the upcoming elections in the country has gained momentum, with members of the Free Software Movement of India (FSMI) and various other groups submitting a set of demands to Telangana Election Commission on Saturday. The state Election Commission has responded positively and assured that the demands will be looked into.

The demands raised by the Hyderabad-based organisations come in the wake of observations made on the role of digital platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter during elections. In its report,

In the memorandum, organisations have sought that a cap should be placed on the amount spent by political parties for online campaigns as well. Currently, the poll body keeps track of election spending of individual candidates and online political campaigns are not taken into account.

“All political parties must submit the relevant accounts regarding their digital expenditure during the election campaign. Political parties should reveal any agreements and consultations with digital monopolies or other firms providing such services to the Election Commission. The information should be made public prior to and during the election process,” the memorandum submitted to the ECI states.

The organisations have also sought that Election Commission set up the necessary infrastructure required to monitor online campaigning and flag any subversion through digital platforms and apps.

The Election Commission has also been asked to conduct an independent audit of the declaration processes for political advertisements and that any app or digital platform that is created by or for political parties should be monitored and audited.

The organisations have also asked the poll body to ensure that digital platforms are not used to target communities on the lines of caste, religion or ethnicity, or in any other way that violates the electoral code of conduct. It can be noted that Facebook allows targeting ads to a specific caste and community.

The same regulations should be applicable for apps developed by or for political parties, it added. The Election Commission should reveal any discussions it has had with digital giants in the run-up to the elections about the process, the memorandum stated.

The organisations have also asked that an outreach programme be conducted to educate social media users on ways to report violations of electoral norms.

FSMI has sought that all digital platforms must reveal who paid them for each advertisement and specify the amount that was paid. It has also sought that the poll body ensures that digital platforms do not any experiments or studies that influence the voting process in any way.

“Political parties in India are making use of digital platforms through advertisements to target voters. Digital platforms have the ability to influence peoples behaviour on a large scale and could have a significant swing in results through manipulation of electoral feeds,” Kiran Chandra, the General Secretary with FSMI, said.

A report in the Economic Times has estimated that digital advertising this poll season could touch Rs 1,200 crore, with Facebook being the platform used the most for advertising.

There is a danger to this trend, the representatives of FSMI who sat down with Telangana EC officials pointed out.

FSMI has referred to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the role the firm allegedly played in bringing the US president Donald Trump to power, as well as on the UK's Brexit vote outcome to leave the EU.

Independent researcher Srinivas Kodali pointed towards the controversy closer home, surrounding the Seva Mitra app of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and how the data collected through the app was allegedly used to profile voters by combining it with state beneficiary data.

“Both the Telugu states are now fighting over the data, treating yours and my personal information as government property,” said the researcher, who warned that if the trend is left unchecked it could lead India down a path of ‘data colonisation’.