There is a low intensity conflict going on between Twitter and the government for last few days. It started when Twitter tagged the Congress toolkit expose by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra as “manipulated media”. Despite the government’s directions to replace the tag, Twitter applied the same tag to a few more posts by some persons. This was reminiscent of how Donald Trump was treated by Twitter last year, ultimately leading to his permanent ban on the platform.
Then came the issue of restricting fake news on the platform. Many people on Twitter, Bharatiya as well as foreigners, started using the term “Indian variant” on Twitter. Ironically, the Chinese origins of the virus were de-emphasized by many of these same people last year, in a bid to be technically correct according to WHO classification and to not appear as racist. In a similar matter, all references to “Singapore variant” were removed by many companies after a terse letter by the government of Singapore. Bharat released a request to Twitter to do the same with posts carrying “Indian variant“, which was completely ignored by Twitter!
Escalation in tensions
Delhi Police visited Twitter offices to serve a notice with regards to the “manipulated media” case, in which Congress had lodged an FIR. This elicited a sanctimonious and magisterial response from Twitter. It expressed concern regarding its employees and cited a “potential threat to freedom of expression” and tried to take the populist route by claiming to do it “for the people we serve”.
It termed the serving of notice as “intimidation tactics” challenged the new IT Rules notified by the government three months ago. It referred to its “constructive dialogue” with “collaborative approach” to ensure changes are made in the new rules.
The government has now taken a hardened pose and released a statement yesterday regarding the whole issue. It made many pertinent points about the whole issue :-
- It strongly controverted the claims of Twitter. It reminded Twitter that protection of free speech in Bharat is “not the prerogative of a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter”, but the commitment of Bharat.
- It called out efforts of Twitter for the defiance of Bharat’s legal process and attempt to dictate terms to the government. The lack of authority delegated to the Twitter’s Bharatiya office despite deriving significant revenue from the country was flagged.
- It raised the issue of non appointment of grievance redressal officer and mechanism, chief compliance officer and nodal officer in Bharat despite it being a requirement as per the law.
- It also underlined the detailed negotiations before drafting the rules and even after drafting to dispel the notion of the rules were made without consultation.
- It criticised the scuttling free speech on Twitter by suspension of people’s accounts and arbitrary deletion of tweets without recourse.
- It explicitly says that “Twitter needs to stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land” as it is just a social media platform and not government.
- It gave some examples of the recent objectionable conduct of Twitter :-
- Twitter showing geo-location of certain locations in Union Territory of Ladakh as part of People’s Republic of China and inordinate delay in rectifying the same.
- Twitter’s delayed and partial action against those involved in Red Fort violence in January even after government directions, despite taking suo-moto action against similar accounts during Capitol Hill violence in the USA .
- The dispersal of vaccine hesitancy and other fake news by Twitter, which has not been curtailed.
- The tagging of B.1.617 mutant as ‘Indian variant’ and non-removal of posts containing this offensive and inaccurate term, despite request by the government.
- The statement tells Twitter to “disabuse itself of this grandiosity and comply with the laws” while also assuring safety to representatives of social media companies in Bharat.
The worries of the government
This surprisingly strong statement has one clear theme – the assertion of sovereignty by the government. There are worries about the digital sovereignty within the government. The actions by Twitter in US, specially banning a sitting President from its platform did not sit well with many heads of state, though only a few made public noises.
In Bharat, the reach of pro-Hindutva accounts on Twitter has been actively curtailed with allegations of “shadow-banning” and unfair suspensions, while Islamists and neo-Ambedkarites accounts spewing vile venom against Hindu community continue to be free of restrictions on Twitter. This shows a marked bias in Twitter operations.
Social media has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to influence elections. The proliferation of fake ids, agents provocateur and companies focused on creating a certain sentiment online has resulted in subtle manipulation of the population. Indeed, when the company itself is biased towards a certain ideology, the suspicion becomes stronger.
This tyranny of the unelected is against all norms of democracy. If the platform itself is not neutral and has bias towards one end of the ideological spectrum, it is in effect not an intermediary under the IT Act, but a publisher. As a publisher, if it can curate content, it also has to take responsibility for the offending content on its platform.
Rules and conventions
There is a view that any strict action on the social media will be condemned by international community and is likely to draw ire of the opposition in the country. One must remember that the international media is even now not very favourable to Bharat. The invisible purse strings of powerful international actors, who have vowed to remove PM Modi from the helm, control the narrative about Bharat in international media. But even then, any criticism by the media or the opposition would not last beyond a few days.
Here, we shall have to decide how we wish to be known to the world. Shall we want to be known as a state that has surrendered its sovereign functions to a foreign company? We certainly don’t want to make a foreign social media company as the arbiter of our freedom of speech and of our privacy.
The transnational nature of social media means that Bharat is not alone in facing such issues. After the ban on Trump, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and Britain’s PM Johnson did express reservations on the action. It seems reasonable to assume that other leaders have similar concerns, even if privately. They would probably be open to an international convention on how social media can be regulated. A coordinated international effort is much more likely to succeed and attract much less criticism.
As such things take time, in the meanwhile, Bharatiya law should take its own course. In US, there are no restrictions on the freedom of speech. Bharat does have reasonable restrictions, keeping in mind local conditions. Can PM Modi do what Trump could not?
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