New Delhi: A day after Amit Malviya, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell head, tweeted out an edited clip from the farmers’ protests, Twitter tagged it ‘manipulated media’.
This is the first time Twitter has taken restrictive action against an Indian political personality.
This action comes following a slew of important policy changes Twitter has recently made to the platform to limit the spread of misinformation.
Twitter rolled out its initial policy draft towards fighting the spread of doctored media in November 2019.
It encompassed a wider ambit than what had been established by Facebook (a focus on deepfakes, or videos synthesised from scratch) and incorporated feedback from its users which suggested that they did not want the media removed in totality, but wanted more context attached to it.
The first political figure to whom these actions were applied was US President Donald Trump in June 2020. A video Trump posted stated that a clip of two toddlers of different races hugging was presented as a false CNN broadcast with the chyron “terrified todler [sic] runs from racist baby”. This was flagged as manipulated media, as multiple journalists reported that the original story had simply been one of the friendship between the two children.
In contrast, the video that Malviya tweeted was not doctored, but edited to distort the truth. A photograph of a policeman swinging his baton at an elderly farmer at the ongoing protests went viral on social media, prompting opposition politicians like Rahul Gandhi to voice criticism of the government for sending in armed police against peacefully protesting farmers.
Malviya used the edited video he tweeted in response to suggest that the baton raised in the image had not actually hit the farmer. He also said that the violence being brought up by the opposition was simply propaganda against the reigning government.
In reality, as an Alt News article explained, there were several instances of the police lathi charging the farmers, who also responded with stone-pelting. Multiple news organisations reporting from the site showed visuals of violent police action in retaliation to farmers breaking their blockade – using tear gas shells and lathi charge.
The ‘manipulation’ that Twitter has flagged as objectionable is the use of the footage in a manner intended to deceive. Section 2 of their Synthetic and Manipulated Media policy says, “We also consider whether the context in which media are shared could result in confusion or misunderstanding or suggests a deliberate intent to deceive people about the nature or origin of the content, for example by falsely claiming that it depicts reality.”
While Twitter has received praise for the policy changes made to hold political leaders such as Trump accountable, its policies have been inconsistently applied so far. Internationally, the last time the ‘synthesised or manipulated media’ clause was used to take action against political figures was September 2019, when it restricted the tweets of journalists and government accounts in Cuba, after President Miguel Diaz-Canel had made a national address warning of an energy crisis due to US sanctions. The Cuban journalists’ union UPEC put out a statement calling this an act of censorship, and concerns were raised over whether Twitter was banning those critical of American foreign policy.
Twitter’s spokesperson at that time had said that platform manipulation policies prohibit users artificially amplifying or disrupting conversations by using multiple accounts.
However, they have failed to take similar action on projects of the same scale in India – a study conducted by an anonymous coder (Rajesh) on Reddit earlier this year found that thousands of ‘fake accounts’ are in use to push fake news for both the BJP and Congress. In his report, Rajesh identified 17,779 accounts that fit the description of being “seed” accounts. All of them were followed by BJP ministers or office-bearers.
Twitter has also come under fire for following a government diktat to remove nearly a million tweets criticising the Indian government in Kashmir, while also withholding Kashmiri accounts in India. It has also historically failed to take action against misogynist and casteist abuse, briefly prompting a migration to competitor Mastadon, to protest what was described as Twitter’s bias towards ‘brahmanical patriarchy’.