Round one of the bout between the parliamentary panel on information technology, led by BJP MP Anurag Thakur, and representatives of Twitter ended as expected – with an extension. The committee asked Twitter’s global CEO, Jack Dorsey to appear before it on February 25 to answer to charges of a ‘liberal’ bias that drowns out right-wing voices.
In an age of nanosecond attention spans, it allows the controversy to stay in the news cycle as the BJP rallies its supporters – ironically, on Twitter – to its cause.
Twitter has just 350 million active users globally, a fraction of Facebook’s nearly 2.5 billion. It begs the question of why the commitee decided to go after a platform that is perhaps the lowest in the hierarchy of usage and profit across the social media landscape. The answer lies not in its numbers, but in politics.
For its size, Twitter punches well above its weight. Its user base seems much more publicly engaged on issues that dominate the news cycle. Global leaders – presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and strongmen alike – tweet directly to users, and sometimes to each other, bypassing the entire ecosystem of official communications, press conferences and statements in the mass news-media.
Tweets make news and often set the agenda for nightly debates on TV in under 280 characters. Twitter’s ability to influence news agendas and mobilise support or dissent (whichever way you look at it), despite its size, is globally formidable.
During the 2014 general election, the social media space in India was dominated by the BJP. Its leaders, including Narendra Modi, had a first-mover advantage – occupying larger-than-life online personas and wielding great influence. Today, a savvier political opposition has caught up and Twitter’s jurisdiction is wide open. Ahead of a volatile, polarised election campaign being fought aggressively online, every byte of space, every character in a tweet, is now fair game.
The right-wing ecosystem of users ‘proud to be followed by PM Modi’, who spent the last five years making a cottage industry out of misinformation and hate, have now levied a charge of bias against Twitter. Stranger still that Twitter’s management can be summoned in election season, on the basis of a complaint by motley BJP supporters, themselves often accused of increasing the platform’s toxicity.
The summons is a leaf directly out of Donald Trump’s playbook. In the months before the US mid-term elections in November 2018, White House officials had to distance themselves from a leaked draft executive order calling on federal agencies to investigate social media companies for ‘online platform bias’ after several statements by President Trump accusing Twitter and Google specifically.
Prime Minister Modi and his party, on the other hand, have thrived on the chimera of social media popularity, even welcoming Dorsey to the PM’s residence in Delhi last year – all in the midst of the US right-wing’s growing outrage against Twitter.
Parliamentary committees have subpoena powers. Undoubtedly, those summoned should respect the dignity of India’s parliament and appear. Given Twitter’s statement, rebutting the charges and repeating what Dorsey said last year – that Twitter acts against behaviour, not ideology – the controversy shows no signs of dying down. The parliamentary committee has dug in its heels too, insisting that Dorsey and not his Indian team appear before it. In fact, the goal-posts are already shifting, from simply platform bias to respect for the Indian parliament.
Platforms have a responsibility for the health of conversations and debate on their sites. But that responsibility has proven to be a tightrope walk between freedom of expression and censorship. Last year, India watched as raging storms around misinformation, abuse and privacy violation enveloped Facebook, while New Delhi also took on Facebook’s messaging product, WhatsApp, and hauled its management over the coals for the platform’s unchecked ability to amplify dangerous rumours.
That move was triggered by the lynching of a tech worker in Karnataka on suspicions of child abduction. The alarm over the spread of fake news, forcing WhatsApp to take steps was welcome. Whether those steps have been effective or not is debatable, what is clear as day, however, is the lack of the government’s response to several lynching deaths of Muslims by mobs of cow vigilantes between 2014 and last year.
Stakeholders around the world – governments, tech companies and civil society – are struggling to find ways to build accountability regarding abuse, violent speech, discrimination and fake news on social media.
Plenty of questions have to be answered to achieve this. What is the platform’s responsibility to take down content when they see their own standards violated? How loosely are those standards defined? How do human beings conditioned to behave with civility and dignity, especially in public become the keyboard monsters we see online? What does the ability to be anonymous do to human behaviour?
These are all valid questions. But the committee’s ham-handed decision – to not tackle the underlying problems – is disappointing. With a larger vision, it could have done so much more, much earlier in its term, instead of just defending questionable voices in the service of a heated election campaign.
If anything, the framing of the summons has proved the right-wing’s own bias. Any formal diktat by the committee will only set a dangerous precedent for constitutional restrictions to free speech – problematic for all, irrespective of ideology. Most likely, this episode may just prove a needless distraction as we as a society urgently search for a balance between proximity and civility.
Maya Mirchandani teaches media studies at Ashoka University, and conducts research on ways to counter violent extremism at the Observer Research Foundation.