Paid News And Exit Poll Ban: Isn’t It Time The EC Stopped Infantilising Voters?

by R Jagannathan - Mar 6, 2017 11:43 AM +05:30 IST
Paid News And Exit Poll Ban: Isn’t It Time The EC Stopped Infantilising Voters?The Election Commission of India.
  • The presumption that voters must be protected from all influences is flawed. Voters will always be influenced one way or the other.

    Voters may make mistakes, but they can correct it the next time. It is not the job of the EC to decide what constitutes a mistake.

The Election Commission (EC) is taking its job a bit too seriously. The outgoing Chief Election Commissioner, Nasim Zaidi, has gone on record to say that “paid news” should be a crime. After banning exit polls till the end of polling, the Commission has now decided they can’t be telecast even on 8 March, when polling ends, but a day later. Reason: two constituencies have to be repolled for various reasons. In another interview, Zaidi complained that it would have been better if the Commission had been informed about the Union budget date shift to 1 February. He obviously does not read too many newspapers or he would have known without the government having to inform him.

The problem with all these statements is that they amount to infantilising voters. There is an underlying assumption that voters are babes in the wood, and must be kept in a vacuum chamber free of polluting news and ideas as they may allow “other considerations” to influence their voting choices.

It is one thing to say bribery cannot be used to entice voters, quite another to believe that voters should be kept in “solitary confinement” from extraneous news that may change voting intentions. If an adult cannot decide which news to believe and which ones to discard, why trust him to vote sensibly? And why is it bad for a voter to exercise his franchise tactically, or according to his own prejudices, if that is what he wants to do? Voting for your own biases is hardly a crime. This is precisely what kept the Congress in power for so long, as minorities were frightened repeatedly with the threat of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power. This is what caused counter-polarisation among Hindus in some constituencies and states. Some voters may have no preferences, and may be happy to vote with someone who looks like winning, but that does not make her vote illegitimate.

Voters are not fools. While they can be fooled once or twice, they can’t be fooled forever. They receive their information from several sources, including local politicians, family, friends, newspapers and TV channels, not just exit polls or paid news. They can understand when a news is biased or tilted, though they may want to believe stories that are in line with their own prejudices or preferences. So paid news is going to make a marginal difference to how they vote.

Zaidi’s statement, that to ensure fair elections, “we are seeking that paid news should be criminalised” is truly shocking. Not that one holds any brief for “paid news”, but surely criminalising what is essentially an advertisement masquerading as news is wrong.

Paid news is not easy to define. A simple definition would be news influenced by the decision of an interested party to pay for its publication. But how will you know something is paid for or not, however tendentious it may be in favour of or against a candidate? Wrong news and motivated news may look like paid news too. The only legal recourse for the wronged party in this case is to sue for defamation.

Second, paid news can be of two types: crude or sophisticated. A crude bit of “paid news” will reek of bias and hence most voters will probably discount it. But at a level of sophistication, paid news is not very different from sponsored or native content. Whether it is The New York Times or The Times of India or many other Indian newspapers and TV channels, branded news or sponsored content is now becoming so sophisticated that the reader can hardly tell the difference between a news item written by a journalist and those which have an advertiser behind the scenes. The purpose of native advertising is to make ads look like real news content, and NYT today has a brand studio manned, according to Business Insider, by “a team of journalists, video producers, technologists and strategists.”

In other words, paid news is now the reality of most advertising, and even the NYT is not immune to this logic. The point: as “paid news” gets sophisticated, how is the EC going to “criminalise” it? It is only a matter of time before Indian newspapers develop the will and competence to make election-related ads sound like news. The only way out is to make sponsorship of news evident, by disclosure, and even this may not be enough. In publications this writer has been associated with, many readers could not tell the difference between a well-written sponsored story from regular ones, with the disclosure element being the main tell-tale identification sign.

As for the ban on exit polls, and the dark muttering about budget dates, Zaidi is again off the mark.

The reason why exit polls have become such a big issue is the extended nature of polling, which really needs to be curtailed. It is not logical for citizens to want to wait two months before learning the outcome of a poll, and efforts must be made to compress polling schedules to not more than a week. The postponement of exit polls by a day – for just two constituencies – is ridiculous.

As for budget dates, it is plain silly to claim that all normal governmental activities should be abandoned when the czars of the EC do their jobs.

The presumption that voters must be protected from all influences is flawed. Voters will always be influenced one way or the other; it is not the Commission’s job to tell voters that they must vote only on pure merit. No voter actually does that. They take many inputs, including their own biases, to come to a decision. If candidates cannot say what they want to, they will do it through dog whistles. Voters may make mistakes, but they can correct it the next time. It is not the job of the EC to decide what constitutes a mistake.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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