As Twitter faces off with the Indian government, it sets an interesting precedent for the way social media platforms interact in countries, and societies – and brings into question the role of government in those nations to ensure that the law of the land is followed.
Even as India celebrated Republic Day in the backdrop of Covid, social media erupted with distinctly un-Republican sentiments. A section of Twitter, claiming the patriotic high ground, wished genocide on the protesting farmers and linked them to the Khalistani movement. Another section, claiming to stand for the interests of farmers, accused the government of plotting genocide. If this had been another storm in the Twitter teacup, no one would have paid attention to it. After all, this kind of abuse and counter-abuse is part and parcel of everyday social media. Unfortunately, the farmers' protest culminated in a riot, and the country saw scenes of violence.
Social media campaign
In the aftermath of the Republic Day riots in Delhi, there were allegations and accusations that riots were fuelled by a very sophisticated social media campaign. On January 31, the ministry of electronics and information technology (MEITY) ordered Twitter to block access to 500+ accounts that it believed had helped fuel the violence. These included handles like the Kisan Ekta Morcha and Trolley Times – handles that were focusing on the protests. It included journalism handles like that of Caravan magazine and for some inexplicable reason, the head of Prasar Bharati.
Twitter initially blocked access to these accounts from India - though these accounts were available elsewhere in the world – but as outrage on social media mounted, these accounts were restored. And faced an irate government. IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in Parliament, “We respect social media a lot, it has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in Digital India programme. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news, violence then action will be taken.’’ MEITY served Twitter with a non-compliance notice, essentially telling the multinational social media corporation, that it was in danger of not complying with the laws and authority of a sovereign state – i.e., the Republic of India.
Twitter responded with a blog post which said that it had acted in accordance with Indian law. It claimed that it had reduced the visibility of toxic hashtags, had suspended accounts that were propagating violence and did pretty much what the government asked it to.
However, it said, “We have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.” Twitter was telling the Indian government that it was not just following Indian law, it was preventing the Indian government from breaking it.
The question naturally turns to who is right – Twitter for upholding ‘freedom of expression’, or the government asking for compliance to prevent law and order issues?
Law of the land paramount
And the answer is easier than we think. On Indian soil, Indian law is paramount. And, the government, whether you like and support it, or not, has a right to ask organisations and people to comply with its interpretation of the law. We, of course, have the right to challenge the government’s instructions in court – the process exists.
Social media platforms have been encouraging hate and vile speech for a long time. They have used it as a glue to hold their networks together and the growth engine to increase their user base. Twitter has allowed itself to be weaponised by various interest groups. It has done this for the longest time. And, then sometime in 2018, it had a pang of conscience and decided to put things right – starting with suspending extreme accounts, and fake accounts. But the damage has been done to most societies by social media platforms playing god – and insisting all of us follow the American 1st amendment, whether or not we are Americans. Rape threats, murder threats, abuse, doxing, were all normal on social media platforms, and are still.
Social media platforms are not the custodians of democracy. They are utilities that we use for our own benefit. And none of the platforms are accountable to either its members or nations. They have, in their quest for shareholder value, allowed manipulation of their technology, that has had devastating consequences on societies. Obeying the law of the land that they operate in, cannot be optional. When people break the law, they go to prison. When corporations break the law, they will be censured. Twitter had no business disobeying the government’s orders. It could have challenged it in court and got it overturned. But it was unilateral, and arrogant, in its non-compliance. And that challenge to the authority of the Indian government, or indeed any government, cannot go unignored.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.