Dealing With Disinformation

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The Constitution of Nepal gives the Election Commission the responsibility to conduct, supervise, monitor, control and manage the elections held to elect representatives at all levels of government. The elections of the past have confirmed that the Commission is capable of holding elections in a free, fair, professional and credible manner. They have also enhanced the Commission’s global image, prestige and standing.

In this context, acknowledging the importance of elections in giving people a voice and stake in our democracy and recognising the crucial role the Commission plays in holding them, the Election Commission has propounded the norm ‘Commission’s Leadership: Common Responsibility’. Currently, preparations for November 20 elections for the House of Representatives and provincial assemblies are in their final stages. The Commission has left no stone unturned to make Sunday’s polls as independent, impartial, transparent, fearless and economic as possible. 

In elections, the time from the publication of the final list of candidates to the day of voting is considered very sensitive. Therefore, in this period, the Commission must exercise the constitutional and legal rights it has been provided to fulfil its duties and also adjust and update them according to the needs of the time. And the needs of the time dictate that we must pay attention to the opportunities and challenges created by the rise of social media.

Digital platforms 

The growing use of digital platforms, and the avenues for the spread of malicious and politically-motivated misinformation, disinformation and hate speech they open up, has made the time before election day even more sensitive. Similarly, even after the voting is over and the results are announced, there is the risk of these platforms giving space to and amplifying malevolent voices that seek to undermine the elections’ integrity and reject their outcome. We must also be aware of the various organised groups that may become active on social media under pseudonyms and fake accounts – something that was seen during the recently held elections in Brazil. The false information that was spread through social media in the last phase of those elections even led to the eruption of street protests and violence. The Commission is very concerned with preventing a similar situation in Nepal and believes others must be concerned too.

Falsities and mistruths have always been deployed during elections. From 1958 to 2017, we have seen parties peddle disinformation in all our past elections to gain the upper hand and harm their opponents. Yet, no one had felt the need to address this issue at the policy level. That has changed now with the development and expansion of information technology. Particularly after the role misinformation and disinformation played in swaying the vote in the 2016 American presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, this issue has become a headache for electoral bodies worldwide. Authorities have set up new legal, policy and structural frameworks to address the challenges brought on by the growth of digital and social media. 

So, the Commission has banned the transmission of misinformation, disinformation, insults, inaccurate statements and hate speech intended to influence the elections from internet or television and has required the Internet Service Provider or the Cable Provider to remove such content if they are transmitted. It has also prohibited candidates from advertising on foreign media to dissuade any attempts to affect the outcome of Nepal’s polls from outside the country. Also, Nepali media are not allowed to republish or broadcast false information that may appear in foreign media. It believes that these provisions will help to prevent possible external interference in our elections.

To discourage the spread of misinformation, propaganda and malicious expressions online, the Commission first included the issue in the code of conduct it issued for the local election in May. Our experiences and learning from there have shaped the definition we have crafted for terms like misinformation, disinformation and hate speech for the coming elections. For instance, we have defined disinformation as false or misleading information spread knowingly with the intent to benefit oneself and harm others and to mislead the general public. Similarly, written or spoken expressions or behaviours that directly or indirectly promote intolerance and violence against a specific caste, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age, disability or other groups have been defined as malicious speech. 

All the rules the Commission has put in place to control the spread of false information and hateful speech are in line with the provisions related to the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution, international instruments to which Nepal is a state party, best practices of various countries, studies and verdicts made by European courts on misinformation. The aim of these rules is to promote free speech. False information, misinformation and hateful expressions sow division in society, spread fear, create distrust, increase discrimination and encourage violence. This may prevent citizens from openly debating and discussing issues and expressing themselves. This is what curtails freedom of expression.

Voters can make the right choice on the ballot only when they get true and accurate information about the political parties and candidates standing in the election. This is not possible unless misinformation is dissuaded. In other words, misinformation undermines the voters’ rights to be informed and may hinder citizens from participating in democratic processes. Misinformation, propaganda and hate speech are enemies of democracy, elections and free speech. 

We also need to control misinformation and disinformation to prevent conflict and animosity that may occur between parties and candidates during election campaigning. They must be controlled to create an environment where both the winners and losers can happily accept the decision of the people. On average, one candidate has to defeat 15 others to emerge victorious this time around. In this context, as only one will win and many will lose, misinformation from losers can spoil the healthy electoral competition. 

EC’s principles 

Impartiality, accountability, transparency and reliability are the principles the Election Commission operates by. Misinformation and hate speech attack the very essence of these principles. Likewise, they also obstruct the Commission’s efforts to prevent position, wealth, stature and access from manipulating elections and establish integrity and honesty as the foundational values for polls.

That is why checking misinformation, disinformation and hateful expressions should not only be the concern of the Election Commission in these final moments, the Commission alone may not be able to protect the elections from these malign forces. This, in fact, is the common responsibility of everyone who believes in democracy. Misinformation before, during and after elections should be a matter of concern for all. If misinformation is allowed to pollute the pristine pool of democracy and freedom of expression then the results can be catastrophic. We must all pay heed to this. Hopefully, the policies prepared by the Commission to regulate the use of social media and prevent the spread of misinformation will support the formulation of future laws.

(Thapaliya is the Chief Election Commissioner of Nepal)

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