Tiffing with Twitter

Tiffing with Twitter

The battle between the government and Twitter has become a battle of wits and, one suspects, egos

Representative image. Credit: Reuters photo

The power of social media is such that despite the threat of propaganda and fake news, it does not only lend voice to the oppressed and the marginalised but more importantly, it can act as a bulwark against authoritarian governments masquerading as paragons of democratic values. Its capacity to become a vehicle of protest and whistleblowing, where a person can speak his or her mind, bitch against a government and vent his or her spleen on its policies makes it so popular and therapeutic. Besides the judiciary, it has become a kind of a life support system for a citizen at a time when the government tends to abuse legal guarantees of liberal freedoms (freedoms of speech, assembly, association, the press, movement, ownership, belief and thought, opinion and expression) and resorts to violence by coercive State apparatus. As the regular media, often dependent on government patronage, can hardly be trusted to protect such freedoms, social media has its mission cut out for it, its nuisance value notwithstanding.

Twitter is the new pulpit for the high and the mighty. Its enormous power and influence over public opinion all around the world was showcased when Barbadian pop star Rihanna used this platform to express solidarity with India’s protesting farmers last year, drawing a global outpouring of support that sent our government into a tizzy. The social media traction against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm policies, with support from climate change activist Greta Thunberg, US lawyer and activist Meena Harris, and lawmakers in the UK and the US, backing the protesting farmers in posts on social media, unnerved the government so much that it had to mobilise a counter-narrative blitzkrieg with hashtags such as #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

“We respect social media a lot. It has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the Digital India programme. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news, violence, then action will be taken,” said Ravi Shankar Prasad, the minister for information technology, in the course of mounting tension between Twitter and the government, peeved over the company’s refusal to fully comply with orders to remove certain accounts that were critical of the government’s handling of the ongoing farmers’ protests.

In principle, the government cannot be faulted. But what happens on the ground is completely antithetical to what the government preaches. “Democracy and freedom were a part of India’s civilisational ethos”, Modi piously averred at the virtual G-7 summit, which, after a fashion, is as much true, as his saying that “cyberspace remains an avenue for advancing democratic values and not of subverting it.” Our Prime Minister has an amazing capacity to make the right noises at the right fora, and none can dispute them at their face value. He said that he “shared the concern” expressed by several leaders that “open societies are particularly vulnerable to disinformation and cyber-attacks.” But it is the government’s record of clamping down on public freedom far too frequently that makes its speech and intentions suspect.

The battle between the government and Twitter has become a battle of wits and, one suspects, egos. One wishes the battle had been as righteous as it is claimed to be. Twitter’s recent run-in with the government after the ‘blue tick’ verification badge was removed from the personal account of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu and of several senior RSS functionaries, including its chief Mohan Bhagwat, and after it described what the BJP had called a “Congress toolkit” to be “manipulated media” demonstrates the kind of democratic spunk that the ruling dispensation is unaccustomed to, which possibly made it go white with rage.

Twitter showed rare courage when it permanently banned Donald Trump’s Twitter account some months ago when it decided that the tweets of the then President of the United States were inciting violence leading to the storming of the US Capitol. That it would not allow any transgression, even if it was by a person holding as high an office as the American presidency, gave hope, particularly in India where even a municipal commissioner or a judicial magistrate is seen to exercise unconscionable authority over people deemed subordinate to him or her. An Indian company having the gumption to take such a stand against any of the country’s smug, powerful officials is difficult to imagine.

The instance of how money power and increasing influence over social media can be manipulated by a ruling party is evident from the way the aggressive #IndiaSupportsCAA campaign was mobilised in 2019. Thus, when it comes to making a choice between the oligopoly of Big Tech and the anti-democratic predilections of a government, it becomes a dilemma. Recently, cartoonist Manjul’s Twitter account fell foul of the authorities, presumably because he’s perceived to be critical of Modi and his government. Delhi police dragged Disha Ravi over the toolkit controversy, the heavy-handedness of which looked like an inquisition. The Amethi Police registered a criminal case against a young man in UP in April who took to Twitter to make an appeal for an oxygen cylinder. The litany of charges pressed against him included circulating a rumour “with intent to cause…fear or alarm… whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquillity!”

“India has a glorious tradition of free speech and democratic practices dating back centuries. Protecting free speech in India is not the prerogative of only a private, for-profit, foreign entity like Twitter,” said a recent government statement. The unsavoury truth is that behind the veneer of good intention and the real threat of social media being overrun by hostile propagandists and armchair revolutionaries, the recent shenanigans against Twitter smack of an overwhelming urge for censorship.

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