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Decode

Blind Spot Of cVIGIL: EC App Doesn't Allow Reporting Online Violations

The EC's app is only meant for real-time reporting, it falters when it comes to pre-recorded evidence or online infractions, leaving a crucial gap in monitoring digital election conduct.

By - Hera Rizwan | 9 May 2024 9:36 AM GMT

Over the past few weeks, videos posted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on its social media platforms, such as Instagram and X, illustrate the Congress allegedly favouring India's minority Muslim community over certain disadvantaged tribal and Hindu caste groups.

One such animated video, which has now been removed from Instagram, showed Rahul Gandhi holding a Congress manifesto, which then transformed its cover into the logo of the Muslim League, emphasising the need for support from every "Bharatiya" for Modi, because “if the Congress Party comes to power, it will snatch all the money and wealth of non-Muslims and distribute it to Muslims. Their favourite community!”

It’s not clear whether the BJP took down this video or whether Instagram removed it after mass reporting.

Another such video depicting senior Congress party leaders granting benefits to Muslims at the expense of marginalised Hindu castes, was posted by BJP Karnataka on their official X handle. In response to which, the Congress lodged a complaint with the state's chief electoral officer against BJP's IT Cell head Amit Malviya, party chief JP Nadda, party state president BY Vijayendra, and the Karnataka BJP social media team.

Subsequently, the Election Commission of India (ECI) asked the micro-blogging site to immediately take down the "objectionable post”. Though not immediately, X complied with the orders after a day’s delay.

The videos are in tandem with Prime Minister’s speeches which accused Congress of planning to redistribute the wealth of the majority Hindus among minority Muslims, who have "more children". These animated videos which explicitly breached the model code of conduct garnered lakhs of views before they were gone for good.

The catch? Election Commission of India's highly advertised app, cVIGIL, that is meant for reporting violations did not come to any use in either of these cases. This is because one cannot upload pre-recorded videos or link to any social media content on the app.

Speaking to Decode, security researcher Karan Saini said that the restriction on uploading images and videos from the phone gallery may be a design choice on the part of the ECI to limit malicious or automated submissions. “However, this severely limits the app's usability and effectiveness for citizens. They can only file complaints if they've personally witnessed incidents, like hate speech at a rally. This overlooks a broad spectrum of potential MCC violations that citizens may wish to submit complaints about,” he added.

The ECI, said Saini, should seek to make available alternate mechanisms that allow citizens to report a wider range of potential MCC violations.

With the Lok Sabha Elections 2024 underway, vigorous ad campaigns and public service messages advocating for 'free and fair elections' are also in full force. A recent advertisement from the ECI, starring actor Rajkumar Rao, echoes this sentiment. The ad depicts a group of individuals distributing liquor, money, and posters to the public.

Upon witnessing this, Rao captures their photo and promptly uploads it using a mobile application. Subsequently, law enforcement swiftly responds to the situation.

The advertisement primarily served as a promotional campaign for the ECI-endorsed application, cVIGIL, which stands for Vigilant Citizen. The app has been touted as “an effective tool in the hands of people to flag election code violations”.

The app is available for download on both iOS and Android devices. It allows users to register complaints anonymously if they prefer.

However, what if a ‘vigilant citizen’ isn't physically present where violations are happening? What if they want to report a video promoting hate or misinformation regarding elections found on social media? Unfortunately, the cVIGIL app doesn't offer a solution for this, lacking such functionality.

‘A user-friendly app’

Introduced in July 2019, cVIGIL is supposed to establish a direct link between citizens and various key entities such as district control rooms, returning officers, and the commission's flying squads.

According to the ECI, the “user-friendly app” enables citizens to swiftly report instances of political misconduct without the need to visit the office of the returning officer.

Individuals have the option to record audio clips, take photos, or shoot videos of election misconduct. As soon as the complaint is sent on the cVIGIL app, the complainant will receive a unique ID through which the person will be able to track the complaint on their mobile.

The cVIGIL app facilitates automatic geo-tagging when users activate their camera to report a violation, aiding flying squads in pinpointing the location of alleged infractions. Images captured by citizens hold potential as admissible evidence in a court of law.

Complaints are directed to the District Control Room and assigned to Field Units, which use the 'cVIGIL Investigator' app to respond. Verified complaints go to the Election Commission's National Grievance Portal, with citizens updated within 100 minutes.


Image Courtesy: cVIGIL app

Currently, the app has over 10 lakhs downloads on the Google Play Store.

As per ECI, as of March 28, the cVigil app received more than 79,000 complaints of violations of MCC since Lok Sabha elections were announced on March 16. The Commission stated that “more than 99 per cent of the complaints were resolved “.

Of the total complaints, 58,500 were about illegal hoardings and banners, with over 1,400 concerning money gifts and liquor distribution. Additionally, 2,454 were related to property defacement. Regarding firearms and intimidation, out of 535 issues, the ECI resolved 529. There were also around 1,000 complaints regarding campaigning after the deadline and loudspeaker usage.

But what about MCC breaches on social media?

Although designed to enable citizens in recording, reporting, and resolving violations of the model code of conduct, the app falls short to address breaches on social media platforms effectively.

While cVIGIL permits online complaints about violations, its limitation to capturing photos and videos in real-time excludes pre-recorded evidence or the ability to upload links, thereby impeding the reporting of social media infractions.

Mentioning the same, the EC website states, “The app will not allow uploading of the pre-recorded images/ videos, neither would it allow users to save photos/videos clicked from this app into the phone gallery directly.”

Hence, citizens cannot seek resolution from ECI, through the app, against political parties resorting to hate speech through their online messaging.

These videos, which blatantly infringe the model code of conduct on grounds of targeting a community, cannot be uploaded on the app which is supposed to be an “effective tool in the hands of people” for flagging such violations.


Image Courtesy: cVIGIL app


‘cVIGIL is a black box’

Alluding to the app's inability to register complaints in the form of pre-recorded entities, independent researcher Srinivas Kodali said that it does not reflect good from a democracy perspective. “Basically, they don’t want somebody in Delhi to file a complaint about something happening in Chennai as it would lead to mass filing of a particular incident. Their intent is palpable,” he said.

Kodali said that the ECI-backed app is more of a black box. “Similar to other ECI apps, this one too does not work effectively. After filing the complaint of a real-time incident, at best we get an unique ID and nothing else in the form of detailed updates. The iOS version of the app does not even work properly.’

As per Kodali, apps like these take away control from citizens and are far less effective than a written complaint. “You cannot attach whatever proof you give in cVIGIL as an affidavit in court. You don’t get the whole complaint copy. One needs to file an RTI for the same,” he explained.

As social media has emerged as a significant platform for political campaigning, where violations of the MCC frequently occur, Kodali highlighted how there is no policy addressing this issue.

He said, “ECI has not extended its regulation over social media since 2019. At that time, the Commission ended up recommending self-regulation to the social media platforms. What it should focus on is proper regulations for political parties instead.”

Despite the efforts of a committee established by the ECI in 2018 to review and propose amendments to the regulation of political campaigning, particularly in light of social media's influence, it became largely an impossibility due to a lack of a cohesive and coordinated framework regulating online intermediaries in general.