A plea has been filed before the Delhi High Court, seeking linkage of Social media accounts such as Facebook and Twitter, with Aadhaar Cards. The plea also seeks in the alternative directions to the Central Government to take apposite steps to deactivate fake and ghost social media accounts in order to control fake and paid news.
A petition in this behalf was earlier filed by the Petitioner-Advocate, Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, before the Supreme Court, which was withdrawn with liberty to approach the high court. Noting that the Madras High Court was already seized of this matter, the bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra had said, "Why must everything come to this court?"
Accordingly, Upadhyay has approached the high court, seeking the above said relief, so as to weed out all fake social media accounts, frequently used by political parties and contesting candidates for self-promotion and other "electioneering activities", even during the 48 hours prior to conclusion of polling.
Considerably, Section 126 of the Representation of People Act, 1951 prohibits electioneering activities by way of public meetings, public performances, processions advertisements through television, cinematograph, radio or similar apparatus for a period of 48 hours up to the time fixed for conclusion of poll.
The Petitioner thus sought that the words "similar apparatus" in Section 126 must include Web Portals and Social Media so as to curtail political parties from manipulating public at the last minute. He also sought that political advertisements during last 48 hours before the poll be declared corrupt practice under Section 123(4) of Representation of People Act, 1951.
"…due to lack of clarity, political parties and candidates not only make house-to-house visit but also advertise through Radio, Newspaper, Web Portals and Social Media during this period, including on the day of polling. Undoubtedly, a distorted and biased Advertisement through social media on the polling day, leaves other candidates with no remedy to undo the damage," he submitted.
Reliance was placed on 255th Report of the Law Commission wherein a similar recommendation to expand the scope of Section 126 was made.
Proliferation of fake news spread through these bogus accounts is also an issue raised by the plea. The Petitioner submitted in this regard that there were approximately 3.5 million fake Twitter handles and 35 million fake Facebook accounts, used for circulating fake, made-up news. These handles, created in the name of eminent political figures, are used to mislead public and influence the outcome of elections by spreading fake news.
"According to a study conducted by the Election Commission of India, during the State Assembly elections held between 2011-2013, there were 1987 cases wherein notices for Fake and Paid News were issued to contesting candidates and 1727 cases wherein the practice of Fake and Paid News being prevalent was confirmed by the District Level Committees appointed by the ECI to control Fake and Paid news," it was submitted.
The Petitioner claimed that circulation of fake news not only violated his fundamental right to know under Article 19 of the Constitution but also affected an elector's right to make an informed choice during elections and hindered free and fair elections. It was further contended that publication of fake news involves use of black money, under-reporting of election expenses of political parties and candidates and indulging in other kinds of malpractices.
The Petitioner submitted that he was forced to knock the doors of the Court as the Election Commission had failed to take cognizance of the matter despite connatural powers to do so under Article 324 of the Constitution. Reliance was also placed on Mohinder Singh Gill & Anr v. The Chief Election, (1978) 1 SCC 405, wherein the Apex Court echoed in clear terms that the powers of the Election Commission could be exercised where there is a void or a vacuum, such as the present case.
Thus directions were sought to be issued to the centre, the Election Commission and the Press Council of India to take suitable steps to control fake and paid news, particularly when the Model Code of Conduct is in force.