India poll watchdog taps smartphone users to fight violations

NEW DELHI • India's election watchdog has asked the nation's 400 million smartphone users to get engaged in the fight against election corruption and fake news as the world's most populous democracy goes to the polls.

The Election Commission of India has offered about a dozen mobile applications to help people document and report election violations such as cash giveaways and voter intimidation, as well as fabricated news reports shared on social media and chat platforms.

Voting started last Thursday and will run for more than five weeks.

More than 70,000 campaign violations have already been reported using the cVigil app, which is available on the commission's website, and more than two-thirds of the reports have been found valid, according to the watchdog's latest data.

It is not immediately clear how many reports of fake news have been received.

The election watchdog has a permanent staff of only about 400 people to monitor India's far-flung polls, which could draw as many as 900 million voters. It also enlists several million local residents, from teachers to police officers, to help out.

Still, they cannot compete with the surveillance power of the citizenry in one of the world's fastest-growing smartphone markets. When a violation is reported, area watchdog staff or their enlistees investigate.

  • >70,000

     Number of campaign violations reported using the cVigil app, which is available on the Election Commission of India's website. More than two-thirds of the reports have been found valid, according to the watchdog's latest data.

 
 
 

Some of the more notable results so far include seizure of more than 34.7 million rupees (S$679,000) found in a bag on a government bus and another 18 million rupees recovered from vehicles parked at a government guest house.

Like many countries, India has struggled with fake news, but a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 39 per cent said mobile phones had been a positive influence on politics, while 21 per cent said they believed they had been a bad influence.

Last month, the watchdog met representatives of social media companies - including WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook - and asked them to establish deterrents, including punitive action against those misusing their platforms.

Last Thursday, Indian election officials also ordered a clampdown on a television channel devoted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi which they say breached campaign rules.

The Election Commission said NaMo TV, which is sponsored by Mr Modi's right-wing party, had to submit all of its content for approval.

Under Indian election rules, any content deemed campaign material - including adverts, films and even social media - needs permission from the election body.

The order made late last Thursday was the commission's second blow to the Modi re-election campaign in 48 hours, after it postponed the release of a flattering movie about the 68-year-old Prime Minister until after voting finishes.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline 'India poll watchdog taps smartphone users to fight violations'. Print Edition | Subscribe