Recently, I noticed that I could no longer tag the official handle of Karnataka Director General of Police (DGP) Praveen Sood -- @DGPKarnataka -- to my posts on Twitter. On further examination, I realised that I had been blocked by the DGP’s office from following his official handle or viewing his posts.
For the uninitiated, blocking is broadly of two kinds. One, the government can direct social media intermediaries such as Twitter to block accounts for promoting ill-will, waging war against the State or such weighty reasons (though in reality, the provision is often used merely to silence the government’s critics). Two, an individual can block anybody else from viewing his posts or interacting with him on the platform.
In my case, I suspect I was blocked because I was strident in my criticism of police brutality during the lockdown and the recent instances of custodial torture, which might have caused some discomfort to the police top brass. But the action seems to be the handiwork of some flunky down the line, because Sood has not blocked me from his personal account. Nonetheless, it raises an important question: Whether those in public service can impose such restrictions on people in order to snuff out criticism?
Though this continues to be a grey area in India, the issue has been repeatedly flagged by courts in the United States. Several courts have ruled that the public has the right to access information on social media, the denial of which amounts to a violation of the US First Amendment. Among other rights, the First Amendment protects “freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
In the Knight First Amendment Institute v. Donald Trump case, a court held that blocking people, based on their viewpoints, from accessing even private accounts of public persons that are used for official purposes is a breach of the First Amendment. Another court had held that the essential character of a Twitter account is not fixed forever as “private accounts can turn into government ones, if it becomes an organ of official business.” However, all personal accounts of those in government service cannot automatically be deemed to be public, especially if they are used strictly for private purposes.
In India, such restrictions conflict with Article 19 (1)(a), the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression, which is our equivalent of the First Amendment. Though social media facilitates a two-way interaction with the public, most politicians and bureaucrats use it merely as a platform to blow their own trumpet. While there are avenues to initiate action against those indulging in personal and malicious attacks or character assassination, blocking those highlighting the failures of the government, officials or elected representatives is an act of gross impropriety and is regressive in nature, though it may not be illegal as of now.
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Senior IAS officer P Manivannan had amply demonstrated how social media could be employed in effective governance when he was at the helm of affairs of the Information & Publicity Department. The department’s Twitter handle @KarnatakaVarthe had become popular as any issue or complaint raised there would be resolved within a day. Such proactive measures increase the confidence of ordinary people in the government machinery.
Unfortunately, most public servants have failed to harness the true potential of social media as a platform to receive and act upon feedback and criticism. They should perhaps take a leaf out of leadership strategist Glenn Llopis’ words, “Leadership is not a popularity contest. Criticism is a natural part of leadership. If no one is criticising your leadership, you are not leading correctly.”
(M Gautham Machaiah has traversed across print, electronic and digital media donning both journalist and corporate robes @GauthamMachaiah)