Yesterday's advisory from the Electoral Commission about rules for media on election day this Saturday is causing some consternation out there in social media land. Some people believe it's tantamount to the Commission "banning" Facebook, Twitter and the like on the big day.
So what does the advistory actually say on the matter?
News stories posted on websites before election day can remain, as long as the website is not advertised on election day. Comment functions should be disabled on all websites, including social media sites, until after 7pm on election day to avoid readers posting statements that could influence voters.
Let's be clear: there is no new law here -- the rules have been essentially the same since the Electoral Act 1993, and the sanctity of polling day has been established for much longer. Section 197 of the Act says, in part (thanks Toby for the paraphrase):
Every person commits an offence and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding $20,000 who … at any time on polling day before the close of the poll exhibits in or in view of any public place, or publishes, or distributes, or broadcasts … any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector as to the candidate or party for whom the elector should or should not vote; or … any statement advising or intended or likely to influence any elector to abstain from voting.
But the interpretation offered by the Commission yesterday is relatively new, and attempts to take account of a changed world, where almost everyone is a publisher.
Does anyone even know how to "disable" comments on a Facebook page? Even under threat of a $20,000 fine?
Writing in The Listener, Toby Manhire saw this collision coming way back in April, and wrote about it in a column titled Why Tweeting on election day could be a crime. He followed it up with An election-day Twitterstorm looms, including a clarification from the Commission which, he wrote, "appears to take a hard line, though is hardly full and final."
Toby raises the prospect of a popular rebellion, such as that which greeted election edicts in Canada this year. The issue there was different to the one here, in that it centred on the communication of election results across time zones, which could influence voter behaviour in places where voting was still underway -- ours is basically just the solemnity of polling day.
Anyway, it didn't really work out, and in a retrospective report on the 2011 election, Election Canada found that "In this rapidly evolving context, the relevance of the existing legal framework must be reconsidered ..."
I think our challenge as electors and citizens can be relatively easily addressed. Not by turning off comments, but by easing up and showing some respect for the day.
I won't be disabling comments here, although it would be technically possible to change the functionality of the site and remove the comment boxes. But that would disable discussion on thousands of topics, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with the election. I do not wish to be instructed by the Commission on matters far, far beyond the Commission's brief.
What I will do is close any open campaign threads, which can hardly be rehabilitated from the impassioned and sometimes partisan debate they contain (it'll probably be a good time to reboot the discussion anyway).
I will open a new thread for people's polling-day experiences -- I think voting is an important and exciting experience and it's good that people should be able to share it in a place like this.
That discussion will be prefaced with an EXTREMELY STRONG WARNING for commenters to "please refrain from discussing the election in a way intended or likely to influence people's votes, or people not to vote, and don't mention any party name, emblem, slogan, or logo." (Thanks to Graeme for the wording.)
If that doesn't work, I'll close the thread and delete offending comments, but I don't think that will be necessary. It really just comes down to Public Address Rule One: Don't be a dick.
At 7pm, I'll kick off an election-night thread in which you may advocate and fulminate all you damn well like.
I'll observe the law in my own Twitterstream too. Everyone else's Twitter and Facebook? Not my responsibility.
We'll discuss this issue and others -- yeah, teapot tapes -- with Toby, Edwin de Ronde (former political insider and now Lecturer at AUT's Centre for Business Studies) and Native Affairs host Julian Wilcox in this week's Media7.
I'll also interview Bryan Bruce about his Inside New Zealand documentary Inside Child Poverty - A Special Report, which screens at 7.30pm tonight on TV3. There are a number of unusual features about the screening -- not least the scheduling of a serious documentary at a time when audiences are actually watching commercial TV. It's also quite a step for TV3 to screen a work that advocates so strongly -- some people will see it as a polemic -- days out from a general election. People are going to talk about this programme.
As ever, you're welcome to come and attend the recording, but things are a bit different from here until the end of the year. We'll be recording Media7 at the TV studio at AUT and you'll need to email me for instructions on how to find it.