Home arrow Archives arrow Open Forum arrow Open Forum-2019 arrow Role of Media in Polls: WATCHDOG-CUM-GUARDIAN, By Dr. S. Saraswathi, 28 March 2019
News and Features
INFA Digest
Parliament Spotlight
Journalism Awards
Role of Media in Polls: WATCHDOG-CUM-GUARDIAN, By Dr. S. Saraswathi, 28 March 2019 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 28 March 2019

Role of Media in Polls


By Dr. S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Election Commission has announced that social media companies will also follow the Model Code of Conduct ahead of General elections. A Voluntary Code of Ethics for General Elections 2019 has been agreed to between the EC on one side and the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) on the other. Several media companies including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Google, Sharechat, and Tiktok were represented in this agreement intended to evolve a mechanism for prevention of abuse of social media platforms in the election period. Whether this will help to enhance the integrity and transparency of the electoral process as stated in the preamble of the code is a big suspense.   


A new phase in electioneering is being witnessed today with increasing use of interactive and digital media along with conventional media that is strong and presently irreplaceable in India. Websites, e-mails, text messages, digital campaigning and social media are in everyday use in election propaganda. Political parties get substantial support for political mobilisation from subscribers in social media.


Introduced in Indian elections in 2014 as an important campaigning aid, social media this time   is a primary tool. Election management has indeed become a special branch of management studies in which application of social media is an important area.


Within a short time, social media has proved that it can bring both advantages and disadvantages to democratic elections depending on the purpose and ability of users from creators to consumers of messages. Barring left parties, which are banking mainly on the support of working classes, all others are using social media as a main channel for political discourse.


Under this agreement, the EC can notify relevant social media platforms of potential violation of Section 126 of the Representation of People Act and other applicable electoral laws. Three-hour time limit is given to them to remove objectionable contents. This code is coming into effect immediately. Election advertisements featuring names of persons and parties must carry the certification issued by the EC.


Users may have to sign a commitment not to misuse the medium for political purposes or propaganda. They should also be made aware of half truths and fake news circulating through social media and warned against being misled by instant messaging.


The EC wants the social media platforms to voluntarily undertake information education and communication for their users about “unlawful conduct during election” particularly during prohibited 48 hours before polling. Use of SMS and WhatsApp as part of electioneering should also stop. In effect, social media companies must operate with accountability like any news media.


Recognised as the fourth estate of democracy and the most accessible forum of public opinion, the role of media is acknowledged in all societies based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.  


Now, it can be said that the fifth estate of networked bloggers offers wider role for the audience articulating important news, circulating individual views on public issues, and generating debates. They change private conversations into public debates. Unlike radio and television, social media promotes dialogues and serve as platforms.


Therefore, there is much speculation about the impact of social media on the outcome of election. There is a general notion that the young, particularly first time voters, who constitute   the biggest segment of social media users to gather news, are likely to get addicted to this media and fall victims.


The development is amazing and unbelievable. Opinions and criticisms that are publicly ridiculed, disproved and discarded in face to face interaction can still be circulated through social media. 


However, mainstream media news has not declined in India despite the growth of the social media. Statements and opinions posted on online can go viral almost instantly giving no time for rebuttal or challenge. Whether good or bad, the message reaches the audience and starts producing the impact as the receiver getting the message through a most sophisticated instrument tends to accept it without verification. During elections, it is being watched with great interest as if it is the sole and all-powerful transmitter of information.


Hence, the competition for grabbing media space, attention, and time is growing minute by minute and so also corresponding attempts to control media and regulate its functioning. Mediated democracy is a new term to denote political deliberations through the media. It goes on in all Indian languages.


Exploitation of the television media has also intensified due to privatisation, commercialisation, and political ownership and/or political support, which makes the TV extremely important communication media in election. Sensationalism, sponsorship, and paid news are part of TV programmes that can influence the voters’ mind. SMS and phone-ins have been part of discussions in TV channels and magazines.


With the expansion of the overreach of the media, both electronic and print, poll surveys have become a regular feature before elections in the past two decades in India. Some media houses themselves are involved in conducting and releasing results of opinion polls and exit polls. As these are likely to influence voting, the EC has prohibited publishing the results of any poll survey between the date of election notification and the completion of poll in all phases. In 1996, then leader of the DMK, Karunanidhi, acknowledged openly that his landslide victory in the Assembly election was due to CMS pre-poll survey results.


Not all pre-poll survey results get into news media. Some newspapers are reluctant to sponsor or publish pre-poll survey findings. It is said that some results are not published if they are not favourable to the sponsors or consistent with the stand of the newspaper. However, pre-poll surveys, on the whole, have not earned reputation for influencing effectively agenda setting or voting pattern.


Electoral democracy is nearly impossible today without an effective and vigilant media.  Elections are not just voting and selecting representatives of the people, but denote a participatory process open to the public in democracies. Participation is meaningless without authentic and timely information or without meaningful and free dialogue. Transparency and accountability are important for authenticity.


Countries that have gone through democratic transition in recent decades have some special regard for the media. But, they are also afraid of media exposures that have led to downfall of regimes and leaders.


At the same time, what has come to be known as infotainment – a combination of information and entertainment - cuts into serious political debates. It is spreading fast with expansion of the social media. By providing more entertainment than information, it is exploitative of the gullibility of the unsuspecting public.


While the media needs to be watched against intrusion of fake news and false propaganda, it has to function as watchdog of political parties and electoral processes to prevent corrupt practices.   It is burdened with immense responsibility. During elections, its true nature comes out.


This watchdog, the media, watching the activities of all actors in an election to guard democracy, also needs a watchdog to regulate its role and prevent its surrender to temptations. Best regulation seems to be self-regulation with peer superintendence. –INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)



< Previous   Next >
  Mambo powered by Best-IT