Need voluntary guidelines for social media during elections, says expert

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Terming misinformation the biggest threat to democracies, International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) President Anthony Banbury has said there was a need for working out voluntary guidelines for social media companies.

Banbury was in Delhi to attend the Election Commission of India (ECI)’s international conference on the use of technology election integrity on Monday and Tuesday. The conference was a part of the United States-led Summit for Democracy, which was held for the first time in December 2021 and the second summit would be held virtually in March this year. The ECI, along with IFES, Mauritius and Greece, was selected to lead the cohort on election integrity in the run-up to the second summit.

Speaking to The Indian Express after the conference, Banbury said it was an opportunity for IFES and ECI to share with election management bodies (EMBs) of other countries the challenges of dealing with misinformation. He said IFES was conducting research on the topic and practical programmes with EMBs. IFES, which is based in the US, is funded by the US Department of State, Canada, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Australian Aid, and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, among others, according to its website.

Referring to his address at the conference on Monday, he said: “I shared this in my remarks yesterday to the conference that the information space is the single gravest threat to democracy, electoral integrity and social cohesion in many countries around the world and it’s only becoming more severe.”

He said technological tools were being developed and made readily available to individuals, candidates, political parties, and malign actors. The low cost of application, the high return, and the low risk were fuelling this, he said. He also raised concern over the use of artificial intelligence and deep fakes.

“More and more companies are out there who are willing to sell commercial services to candidates, parties or nefarious actors who want to influence election outcomes to spread misinformation campaigns, to attack political opponents and where those attacks are coming from are not seen by those consuming the information via social media,” he said.

He said ECI had conveyed its interest in continuing to work together in the international context to address the issue. He added that social media companies must be a part of the solution as at the end of the day, it was their platform being used to disseminate misinformation.

“Of course, we very much support freedom of expression. We have seen in some other countries efforts to supposedly combat misinformation online but really it is an attack on free speech by autocrats. Obviously, we have to resist that. I think there is an opportunity to have voluntary guidelines for social media companies to apply in the context of elections that would be worked out. EMBs would be a very important contributor to the development of those guidelines,” he said.

The guidelines should be focused on the context of elections instead of broader societal challenges of social media misinformation and disinformation, he said. He said the work of the conference would influence the outcome of the Summit for Democracy, where heads of state and government would meet virtually on March 29 and March 30.

During the first summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for “global norms for emerging technologies like social media and crypto-currencies, so that they are used to empower democracy, not to undermine it”.