Rise of social media has greatly influenced election campaigns across the globe. Indian elections are also no exception to this emerging social reality with political parties, leaders using social media and hiring social media strategists to reach out to electors in a bid to garner their support. Rapidly increasing number of users and the lightning speed at which such digital campaign spreads makes it a daunting task for the Election Commission of India to track the electioneering on the social media platforms. India has over 500 million Internet users; and at least 70 per cent of them are daily active users, reveals a study conducted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. The campaigns on the social media are managed by the IT cells of the political parties. The major political parties have hired IT professionals to make viral the political campaigns on social networking sites. However, majority of the social media users whom the IT cellsof parties target to reach out are not empowered to detect a fake news and believe everything that is shown to them by social networking sites. In respect of Assembly polls in the four States of Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry, the Election Commission has announced that political advertisement in all electronic media/TV Channels/Cable Network/Radioincluding private FM channels/Cinema halls/audio-visual displays in public places/voice messages and bulk SMS over phone and social media and Internet websites shall come within the purview of pre-certification. The EC has requested all political parties and candidates to ensure that their supporters do not indulge in hate speeches and fake news. However, keeping a strict watch on the social media posts to ensure that the election atmosphere is not vitiated, is easier said than done. Tracking the social media content during the multi-phase elections is a difficult task. In the multi-phase elections, campaigning continues in come continues while the silence period of 48 hours starts ahead of polling in some constituencies. The Model Code of Conduct prohibits the parties and candidates campaigning in constituencies going to polls in subsequent phases from making any direct or indirect reference amounting to soliciting support for parties or candidates in the constituencies observing the silence period. The effectiveness of this component of the Model Code of Conduct in the digital age needs to be reviewed as campaign issues highlighted by parties and candidates that concern voters of all constituencies can reach instantly through the social media even to electors in the constituencies during the silence period. Digital technology has become an integral part of modern life; and is now extensively used by the Election Commission for smoother conduct of election. The EC has made use of digital technology to enable the candidates to submit nominations online, parties and candidates to seek permission for election rallies loudspeakers and others through the online permission module of SUVIDHA portal and track status through SUVIDHA app. It uses social media apart from the traditional media for awareness drive among voters. Digital silence, therefore, is neither desirable nor possible as a solution to the problem encountered in enforcing silence period in true sense in the social media that has grown with rapid advancement in digital technology.
Digital empowerment of the voters can enable them to distinguish a fake news from truth and learn not to be misled by it. However, checking digital content of election campaign speeches, campaign videos which are not fake circulating in constituencies under the silence period is technologically not possible. Enormity of the challenge of physically detecting the violation can be best understood from the statistics related to volume and speed of social media posts. About 2.5 lakh photos are uploaded in Facebook every minute. Billions of fake accounts detected by the social networking platforms and deletion of millions hate speech content point towards the grave danger the fake accounts on social media platforms pose to the democracy. The huge number of social media posts makes it physically impossible for human editors to segregate the fakes from the real and the algorithms decide what is to be shown to users or to be deleted. The social media do not have editors to perform the role of gatekeeping of fact-checking and verifying the authenticity but a traditional media which has editors for fact checking and use of social media for distribution of news is more reliable. Single-phase polls can be the answer to the problem of effective enforcement of silence period in the age of social media. The Election Commission, political parties and candidates will be expected to explore technological solutions to make the model code of conduct effective in multi-phase polls in the social media age if single-phase polls are not possible. Ensuring true silence period for voters to enable them to form opinion during silence period must be central to conduct of elections.