Why Twitter's refusal to appear before a Parliamentary Committee is more complicated than it seems
With elections around the corner, social media's role has become a turf war for opposing ideologies.
Who would have thought Twitter’s modest 280 characters could raise such an uproar?
On February 11, Twitter’s officials, including founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, refused to meet a Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology, citing short notice. This announcement came ten days after the micro-blogging website’s bigwigs were asked to make an appearance before the panel.
In a situation similar to the US, where Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg were summoned before the US Congress, the allegations against Twitter here include a bias against right wing posts and the spread of fake news on its platform.
Right wing group, Youth for Social Media Democracy, staged a protest outside the Twitter India office on February 3. They believe that the platform is deliberately blocking right wing accounts and curbing its reach.
Ethical questions, on social media platforms like Twitter, however, get tangled up with issues of free speech, AI algorithms, and the anonymity the internet provides. Staying true to its social media roots, Twitter posted a blog on February 10 explaining its policies, especially in relation to how account blocking and trending topics work.
As it clarified on its blog, “Abuse and hateful conduct comes from accounts across the ideological spectrum and we will continue to take action when our rules are broken.”
Online abuse has become another form of bullying, where accountability is hard to come by, with most trolls using fake accounts and anonymity of their computer screens. With increasing social media usage, and a corresponding rise in awareness, multiple reports have surfaced citing the rise of trolling from right wing groups.
The venom they spew ranges from misogny, anti-minority rhetoric, casteist comments, to just about every abusive term you can think of.
When journalist Gauri Lankesh was murdered in September 2017, the vitriol poured on social media by right wing associated trolls was unsettling. One that stood out was a tweet by user Nikhil Dadhich, which, translated into English, said: “A bitch died a dog’s death and all of her litter is crying in the same voice.”
What makes it even more disturbing is that, at the time, Dadhich’s account was being followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Other similarly abusive accounts were also being followed by him. After much criticism and backlash, Modi cleaned up his Twitter following to a large extent.
However, at the time of writing this piece, Dadhich’s account is verified and has a following of over 49,000.
Another big problem plaguing social media is the rise of fake news. Fact-checking website AltNews, just last week, debunked a viral Facebook post. It contained an old photograph that claimed to depict Rajiv and Rahul Gandhi offering Islamic prayers at Indira Gandhi’s funeral. From the Facebook profile of a BJP youth worker, Manoj Kumar Rana, the photograph was circulated with the caption: "Even though Rahul and Rajiv Gandhi offered Islamic prayers in front of Indira Gandhi’s dead body, people say they are Brahmins.”
The post received 30,000 shares at the time of writing this article. As the website later found, it was actually a photograph from the funeral of Pashtun freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, popularly known as “Frontier Gandhi”.
With Twitter being under fire worldwide, from the US to the EU, over similar issues, the website has tightened its monitoring on online abuse. As it stated on the blog post, “We have a specialised, global team that enforces the Twitter Rules with impartiality. Twitter India employees do not make enforcement decisions. This is by design to ensure fairness and objectivity.”
BJP MP Anurag Thakur, who heads the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology that summoned Twitter’s officials, has already expressed his displeasure over Twitter’s refusal to appear before the panel by tweeting (the irony of this is not lost on us), “The Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology takes a very serious note of this. We will take appropriate action on 11th February.”
The ruling BJP government is well known for its adept social media strategy, many attributing its landslide victory in 2014 to its highly efficient social media campaign. Twitter played a big role in this along with Facebook and WhatsApp. So why is there a hue and cry by right wing groups now?
The ruling government has been facing a social media onslaught against it across the country with #ModiGoBack and #GoBackSadistModi trending on Twitter.
This is especially so in the northeastern states where there are ongoing protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, and Andhra Pradesh where people are upset over the Centre’s inability to fulfil promises made when the state was bifurcated.
Have the chickens finally come home to roost for the BJP and its trolls? Are AI algorithms – which by their very nature are unbiased – picking up on abusive language faster and, therefore, inadvertently, flagging right wing trolls and their accounts?
It seems to be so.
It looks like social media is no longer the tool it once was during the 2014 elections.