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    IFF Raises Concerns Over ECI’s Misinformation Policies in Elections

    The Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, wrote a letter to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to voice their concerns around inadequate and incomprehensive action taken by the electoral body regarding MCC violations by political parties.

    The letter sent on May 13, 2024 looked at a letter sent by the ECI on May 6 to all national and state recognised political parties that cautioned against the use of “manipulated, distorted, edited content on social media platforms” that can “wrongfully sway voter opinions, deepen societal divisions, and erode trust in electioneering process by attacking laid out instrumentalities of the electoral steps in terms of means and material.” Here are the criticisms raised by the organization.

    ECI directions contain constricted timelines and ambiguous phrasing: IFF urged the ECI to reconsider its direction on taking down “false, false, misleading” or ‘impersonating’ content, raising concerns about its impact on free speech and satire.

    The organization pointed out that the direction fails to clarify its implications for satirical and parody accounts that may impersonate political parties or their representatives. Further, it warned that undefined terms like “fake” or “false” imply an objective, identifiable truth and create a binary of ‘true-false’ when in fact content in the digital space cannot always be categorized so.

    “The use of terms such as “misinformation”, “patently false”, “untrue”, and “misleading” are reflective of the vague and arbitrary language used in the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Amendment Rules, 2023”). Reliance on such undefined terms allows for its misuse through subjective application and selective enforcement,” said the letter.

    The advocacy group also noted that the direction does not specify whether political parties or another entity are responsible for identifying the content.

    Excessively short timelines can cause panic: IFF also warned that the short deadline of identifying and taking down contentious content and their makers within three hours could result in panicked decisions.

    “While the improvement of deepfakes detection and prevention of their rapid spread is important, none of this can be done without learning about the different types of deepfakes, understanding the complexities and high costs associated with the detection and attribution of such technologies, as well as the reason behind their virality,” said the IFF.

    To illustrate, IFF gave the example of how cheapfakes, doctored/ edited media, or even authentic media are mislabelled as deepfakes, leading to disproportionate censorship. It warned that challenging or dismissing real online content by classifying it as fake may have deeper consequences for media legitimacy, especially in “politically fragile environments.” Thus, it asked the ECI to “realistically assess” the awareness and ability of political parties to identify/detect AI generated media.

    “The detection of AI generated media, especially automated detection tools that use AI, may not be completely accurate. AI detection tools or systems may be biased in themselves and so their result may end up being discriminatory. Existing research also highlights the lack of consensus around the impact of generative media on misinformation,” said the letter.

    It warned that researchers have said “such “moral panics” might be based on the mistaken assumption that people are gullible” and advised against excessive and speculative warnings about the ill effects of AI on the public arena and democracy.

    GAC not an effective body to resolve MCC violations: The ECI directs parties to approach the Grievance Appellate Committee (GAC) under Rule 3A of the IT Rules, 2021 in case of “continued presence of such unlawful information or fake user account after reporting to social media platform”. However, the GAC is an executive-constituted committee that adjudicates on user appeals against the content moderation decisions of intermediaries.

    “This essentially makes the Union Government (instead of, ideally, an independent judicial or a regulatory body) the arbiter of permissible speech on the internet as platforms are obligated to abide by the decisions of the GAC. It may also incentivise social media platforms and intermediaries to suppress any speech unpalatable to the government,” said the letter.

    Definitional inadequacies in the IT Rules, legal uncertainty of the GAC, lengthy resolution procedures and the challenges in accurately identifying synthetic media, combined with the ongoing threats to the immunity held by platforms and stringent punishment for non-compliance or inaction, may threaten media freedom and legitimacy, said the IFF. Further, the ECI’s decision to specify “fake user account” in its directions raises concerns about anonymity on the internet.

    Delayed and dispiriting response from the ECI: The IFF criticized the ECI for its delayed response to the spread of AI-generated synthetic content after the end of two of the seven polls for Lok Sabha seats.

    “The election period has seen several instances of circulation of disinformation and falsely contextualised content, including content with misleading communal narratives. Thus, we would like to note our disappointment with the ECI’s decision to limit their directions to political parties on the circulation of manipulated, edited, or distorted content and content pertaining to women, children, and animals. Despite several widely circulated pieces of content having misleading communal claims and allegations, both doctored/ manipulated and otherwise, the directions issued by the ECI do not explicitly mention the party representative’s duty towards not spreading content that “aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic,”” said the IFF in the letter.

    The advocacy group particularly criticized the ECI for the recent post by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Karnataka unit on X microblogging platform (formerly Twitter) which triggered nationwide outrage due to its communal attack on the Indian National Congress (INC).

    “The ECI did not directly warn or take action against the BJP. The ECI’s silence on political speech that attacks a particular community is disappointing, especially given that at least one national party has filed a complaint against the BJP to the ECI for the aforementioned post and other content posted by the party that too violates the MCC, Representation of the People Act, 1951, and the Indian Penal Code, 1860,” said the IFF.

    Responsibility when manipulated/ misleading media favours political actors: IFF said that manipulated/misleading AI-generated content, can become an essential instrument in elections to influence voters. The group asked the ECI to consider directing political parties and representatives to advocate against manipulated media that leads to a favourable outcome for them. IFF also wrote to the BJP and INC, regarding their responsibility not to use manipulated/misleading synthetic content and not to endorse any such content that may influence citizens who have a right to cast a free and informed vote.

    “We must also consider voter’s potential inability to distinguish between real and synthetic content, leaving them vulnerable to deception and maybe even disenfranchisement. AI-powered disinformation campaigns can influence voter behaviour by spreading false narratives or amplifying divisive content. This fundamentally affects the ability of citizens to exercise their democratic right to cast a free and informed vote,” said the letter.

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    The post IFF Raises Concerns Over ECI’s Misinformation Policies in Elections appeared first on MEDIANAMA.

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