Fake news has always plagued the build-up to the elections. With the social media boom, the threat has only grown manifolds. It is not just the electorate but the political parties, as well as the EC, are rendered vulnerable as they are becoming increasingly reliant on digital telecommunication. So, what does India need to do to prevent these?
Limiting the unrestrained export of data through social media should be the beginning step. Next is expanding the definition of “sensitive personal data” under the proposed B.N. Srikrishna committee on data protection. Most importantly, there should be an order to stop WhatsApp from sharing data with its parent Facebook, as has been done in countries such as the UK. Working with social media platforms to create reasonable ways to regulate online hate and fake speech is also important while balancing the need to protect freedom of expression. In digital discourse, there is also a need to define “hate” and fake”. Also, voter registries need to be removed from the public domain and lastly, study the abuse—potential and actual—by technology platforms of their dominant position. India also needs new rules and norms on political advertising and the sale of data to third parties.
We also need to take measures for cyber risks. Firstly, the EC needs to establish a cybersecurity unit and train officers and political staffers in basic cyber hygiene. Second, it needs to work with tech companies towards greater international cooperation. Third, cyber interference in elections should be recognized and punished by domestic law. Additionally, we also need reforms in the Indian Penal Code and IT Act, 2000 to better define a “cyber-crime”.
Democratic politics has seen unprecedented possibilities courtesy internet. While this is a good movement, it’s increasingly becoming bad. It is an opportune moment, not just to begin cleaning up the current mess but to look ahead to the difficult questions that may arise in the future.