Regulating Diffuse Actors in the 2024 Indian Elections

A sketch on a background image, mostly in turqoise color and with various shapes
The regulation of political content on social media platforms is already complex and problematic, but is made even more complicated by the a loose network of political elite actors, influencers and the general public who create, share and disseminate content. In this article, we will look at the role that 'diffuse actors', with no institutional or organisational affiliations, play in disseminating and amplifying political speech on social networks in India, and their contribution as vote mobilisers in recent and upcoming elections.

In January 2023, the US-based firm Hindenburg Research published an investigation accusing the India-based multinational firm, Adani Group, of fraud. When the Adani Group published a response denouncing the report on social media, the case, now referred to as the Hindenburg-Adani controversy, attracted public, and political, attention. Various actors – including some social media accounts from members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – weighed in to defend the Indian corporation and to discredit both the report and Hindenburg Research. Setting aside the question of why members of the ruling party would use their official platforms to defend a private corporation – it was the notable mobilisation of several online handles unrelated to either the corporation or the ruling party that are at the heart of this story, as they represent the behaviour – and impact - of diffuse actors in Indian politics. Most users commenting on this case were not even habitual commentators on business news and developments, nor were they bots or automated campaigns: this social media outrage was a consequence of the mobilisation of social media users in a coordinated campaign to defend a corporation considered close to one of the political parties.

This Hindenburg-Adani controversy raises concerns regarding the rise of diffuse actors involved in creating and disseminating extreme speech online – as well as the availability of tools and powers to hold these online campaigns to account.

These types of loosely networked individuals and floating groups of volunteer are already often found indirectly connected to campaigns and actively engaged in mobilizing voters.

For example, a report by Nidhi Singh and Gunjan Chawla from the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University Delhi, found that the top ten Facebook pages for political advertisements in February and March 2019 cost ₹61,324,689 (roughly $864,457*). Interestingly, out of these ten pages, only two were registered under political party names, while the remaining eight were registered under private company entities without clear political affiliations. Furthermore, four of these pages did not even have disclaimers as required by Facebook's policies.

These diffuse actors don’t necessarily mean an advantage for underdogs or grassroots campaigns. To understand the role of a large number of mobilisers for an established party, let us examine the impact of BJP-leader Narendra Modi’s 2014 campaign. The well-established BJP not only have a single leader who had a significant effect in how they are perceived, they also have a significant partisan base committing their time to spreading the message of the party. Moreover, the BJP is closely aligned with the well-organized social group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Political parties closely associated with social organizations tend to be more cadre-centric rather than leader-centric allowing for an easy adaption to diffuse social media-enabled networks.

In the 2014 elections, public opinion noticeably shifted in favor of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) between 2013 and 2014. Before the elections, data from the National Election Studies conducted by the Lokniti programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) indicated that 27 percent of voters planned to vote for the BJP, while another 27 percent planned to vote for the Indian National Congress, its primary opposition party. However, a year later, post-poll data from the National Election Studies revealed that 36 percent of the respondents preferred Narendra Modi as prime minister, compared to the 19 per cent in 2013. Research demonstrates that rather than a direct leadership effect, Modi's ability to attract a large number of vote mobilizers played a crucial role in garnering support for him and the BJP.

Vote mobilizers are individuals who go beyond simply voting, engaging in activities such as making monetary donations, door-to-door canvassing, and distributing leaflets/posters on behalf of a particular party.

In recent elections, particularly in 2014 and 2019, vote mobilisers played a significant role in generating support through social media. Analysis conducted by Chhibber and Ostermann on the National Election Studies data revealed that only a small portion of the BJP's vote mobilizers were party members, while the majority had no institutional affiliation with the party or any regulatory structures.

In his book "War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology behind Narendra Modi's 2014 Win," N.P. Ullekh highlights the role played by Prashant Kishor's NGO, Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) during the general elections, which is also examined by partner Vasudevan Sridharan. Kishor, who had previously worked with Modi's team during the 2012 state assembly elections in Gujarat, recognized the need for a team to run a presidential-style campaign. CAG recruited graduates from prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian School of Business (ISB), Stanford, Cornell, national law schools, and individuals with finance and marketing experience from reputed companies like JP Morgan, Michelin India, IBM, Barclays Capital, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, McKinsey & Company, and Goldman Sachs.

CAG systematically mobilized the youth by organizing a large "Manthan" event in September 2013. The aim of this conference was to involve youth in shaping the agenda of the upcoming elections and connecting them with policymakers. Online forums were created with questions seeking solutions and ideas, resulting in 20,000 responses from 700 colleges. Subsequently, 500 "campus ambassadors" were selected to visit college campuses, identify the best responses, and arrange meetings with influential leaders. Through this process, CAG succeeded in engaging around 500,000 young individuals across the country to assist with the campaign.

In each parliamentary constituency, a few CAG members closely collaborated with RSS-BJP leaders, and they received assistance from numerous volunteers who continuously joined from those regions. Ullekh's report states that CAG created 316 Facebook pages for different Lok Sabha constituencies, with 160 pages prioritized based on research identifying them as constituencies with higher digital impact. These Facebook pages quickly received requests for direct interaction with Modi, leading to the well-known 'Chai Pe Charcha' online initiative. In these regular video conferences, Modi hosted events from tea stalls in Ahmedabad, which were then relayed to 1,000 more tea stalls in 300 cities. This initiative served the dual purpose of reclaiming the 'chaiwala' tag that the Opposition had used to try to denigrate his humble beginnings as a train station chai vendor, while also highlighting the cultural significance of tea in India as a social bonding agent and a setting for both formal and informal discussions.

The implementation of this concept was a massive undertaking, in which CAG and its network of volunteers played a crucial role. Modi addressed people gathered at tea stalls in 1,500 selected locations, answering their questions and listening to their grievances. The proceedings of the program were instantly translated into local languages in non-Hindi-speaking states. Initially, CAG independently identified and established 'Chai Pe Charcha' tea stalls with assistance from their volunteer base, many of whom had approached them through local BJP party offices or via online and offline media. As CAG was technically operating as an independent NGO, the MCC was not involved with any of these activities as the MCC is only pertaining to politicians and political parties.

Communication scholar Sahana Udupa has conducted research on vote mobilisers, which involved ethnographic fieldwork among politically active online users in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru since 2013. Udupa also analyzed social media content and network interactions through purposive sampling. According to her findings, one category of vote mobilizers was the 'techie-turned-ideologue', which primarily consisted of technically trained, English-speaking volunteers proficient in social media. These individuals did not receive any financial compensation from the party and engaged in their work out of passion. Another category was comprised of monetized actors who created online pages, often appealing to Hindutva actors, but also those critical of Hindu nationalism. Their primary motivation was to earn money by building an online following, which could later be monetized through advertisements. There were also actors whose ideology aligned with their business interests.

Udupa provided an example of an avid Modi supporter whose involvement in digital influence work for a local BJP leader stemmed from the need to secure the first contract for their recently launched digital media company. This involvement often led not only to business opportunities but also provided access to influential figures within the party and government. These are examples of actors often not directly hired by or associated by the party’s campaign, but still personally and even financially tied to the party’s success.

At present, there are no existing regulations addressing this kind of decentralized behavior, and neither the law nor the ECI (Election Commission of India) is equipped to regulate the funding of such actors.

Before political elections at any level in India, the Election Commission of India (ECI) announces the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which is a set of instructions to be followed during the election campaigning period. The Model Code of Conduct serves as a non-legislative guideline, non-binding set of recommendations to regulate the behaviour of political parties and candidates. Some aspects of the MCC deal with codification of legislative mandates, such as elaboration of ‘corrupt practices’ under the Representation of Peoples Act. However, most of the MCC works in addition to legislative oversight by providing guidelines of electoral behaviour of political parties, and the procedural powers to enforce them.

The MCC originated during the state elections in Kerala in 1960 and has gradually expanded over time. Initially, it focused on regulating election meetings, speeches, and slogans. From 1979 onwards, the MCC began focusing on the political party in power and including recommendations to prevent its misuse of state resources. For example, it prohibits appointed ministers from combining official visits with election campaigns, using government machinery and vehicles for electioneering, and utilising government platforms for political advertising. Over the years, the MCC has incorporated guidelines on various aspects such as general conduct, meetings, processions, polling day, polling booths, observers, and election manifestos.

The MCC, however, is weak in regulating the campaigns of diffuse actors. In particular, the MCC becomes effective once the ECI announces the election dates. However, in the current political landscape, where politicians are constantly campaigning, the notion that the campaign begins only after the election dates are announced is unrealistic. In some cases, such as of the 17th Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the time between the announcement of the dates was less than even a month limited the ability for the MCC to effectively cover many current trends in political campaigns. The MCC is not enough to cover the year-round and constant campaigning carried out by diffuse actors such as in Modi’s campaign described above.

Furthermore, critics often view the MCC as toothless as it only leads to reprimands, written condemnations of the offences, rather than being legally enforceable. In severe instances, the ECI, and other parties with a locus standi can file a criminal complaint against the offending party if the actions are violations of criminal provisions. Although the MCC lacks legal backing, the ECI has several options at its disposal, ranging from public naming and shaming to imposing restrictions on campaign activities of defaulting parties, and in extreme cases, even altering the election dates. In cases of repeated offences, the ECI does have a few other recourses available, including the removal of their candidature. According to S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner, an active ECI can make a significant difference, and even a publicly voiced caution to parties carries considerable weight.

image showing the strengths and weaknesses of both the Model Code of Conduct and the CodeThe MCC and the Code try to address different aspects of political campaigning. Source: Tactical Tech

However, the ECI is not always active, and is therefore weak in regulating many aspects of campaigns, especially the party in power. Consequently they are weak in monitoring, and bringing to account, political group’s use of social media networks. Further, the party’s engagement with diffuse actors often relies tactics which have yet to be regulated or have a precedent set, making it easier for the ECI to play down any recourse. For example, since 2019 there have been instances concerning strongly divisive language which could have qualified as an offence but in which the ECI either kept silent or took lesser measures such as filing gag orders but not opening investigations or passing on for legal recourse.

The MCC is also weak because they only regulate the conduct of political parties and candidates, not other stakeholders involved in the electoral process, including internet platforms and actors not formally aligned with political parties. To address some of these gaps, in March 2019, the ECI invited various internet companies, including Google, Facebook and ShareChat, to collaborate on the creation of a Voluntary Code of Ethics for General Elections (Code). Recognizing the growing impact of social media on electoral processes, the purpose of this new code was to enhance confidence in the electoral process. Under the leadership of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IMAI), these companies presented the Code to the ECI in March 2019.

The Code primarily aimed to increase transparency in paid political advertising, bringing political ads on platforms like Facebook and Twitter under the purview of the MCC. For example, parties were required to disclose expenditure accounts for social media advertising as they do with newspaper and radio advertisements. Advertisers were allowed to submit pre-certificates issued by the ECI and the Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) for election ads featuring the names of political parties or candidates. Candidates were also obliged to provide details of their social media accounts when filing nominations. Additionally, the Code included provisions for direct communication channels between the companies and the ECI to expedite complaint resolution. Expenditure on social media had to be declared by candidates and parties, thereby incorporating it into the overall spending limit.

However, the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Representation of Peoples Act do not provide a specific definition of “political advertising.” As a result, each internet platform was left to decide for themselves how to govern political advertising. For example, Google considers political advertising to include ads from political parties, businesses, non-profit organizations, and individuals, as long as they feature a political party. On the other hand, X, formerly known as Twitter, defined political advertising as ads purchased by a political party, political candidate, or advocating for a clearly identified candidate or political party. X placed a ban on political ads in 2019 after the micro-blogging site faced criticism for not curbing the spread of misinformation during elections, though this was relaxed considerably in 2023.

While these developments led to the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) guidelines in 2019 in which political parties and candidates were required to disclose their expenditures on social media advertisements, there has still been no attempt to regulate ad spending by loosely connected supporters who indirectly contribute to campaign funding through coordinated advertising. Some platforms have made efforts to introduce accountability in this unregulated space, such as requiring disclaimers on paid advertising, implementing take-down procedures for non-compliance, and creating a public repository for easy access to advertisements and expenditures. However, these measures are still inadequate in identifying all types of political content and actor and only partially enforced. There is only a minor punishment of ₹500 for any political content that comes under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for unauthorized election advertising, known as ghost advertising. This fine is significantly lower compared to the substantial amounts of money spent on platform advertising.

image showing the amount of money donated to the seven largest politial firms in India in 2019-2020Donations from unknown or unreported sources are increasing which makes aspects of regulation difficult. Source: Tactical Tech

The emergence of unregulated, diffuse entities poses complex questions for regulatory bodies and sheds light on the myriad of ways in which online campaigns are now run. In states where election management bodies already face capacity issues, it is not realistic to increase the regulatory scope by including all political content during elections. However, more traditional regulations, such as reforming campaign finance laws are needed in order to effectively monitor and protect fair elections over longer times and with real consequences for campaigns which disrupt democratic values, in particular during the age of diffuse actors such as the time period for which MCC remain in effect needs to be reconsidered. According to the report of election watchdog, Association for Democratic Reforms, in 2019-20, India’s seven largest political parties received ₹3,377 crores (roughly $462 million*). More than 70 per cent of all party funds were from unknown sources. This was made possible, at least in some part, by the electoral bonds which permit donors, including foreign parties, to make anonymous tax-free contributions. There is a dire need to find ways to regulate the funding of more diffuse actors who, without formal affiliations to political outfits, are allowed to play the role of able foot soldiers.

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About the Author:

Amber Sinha works at the intersection of law, technology and society, and studies digital technologies' impact on socio-political processes and structures. His research aims to further the discourse on regulatory practices around the internet, technology, and society. He is currently a Senior Fellow-Trustworthy AI at Mozilla Foundation studying models for algorithmic transparency, and an Information Fellow at Tech Policy Press. Until 2022, he was the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society, India (CIS). He has led research programmes on privacy, identity, AI, cybersecurity and free speech.

Connect with Amber on X, formerly Twitter, at @ambersinha07 and Instagram and @Ambersinha on Mastodon. You can also find Amber on LinkedIn at @Amber-Sinha

If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

First published: December 20, 2023.

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