CNBC TV18 Column : The Twitter stand-off: Parliament has every right to question the social networking site

I write about the face off between Twitter and the Indian Parliament for CNBC – TV18

At the core of the stand-off between the Indian Parliament’s standing committee on Information technology and Twitter is the perception by the Indian right wing that twitter is biased against it and applies rules rather liberally when it comes to right wing members of the social network. Twitter is the preferred choice of platforms for those who want to discuss politics, society, and other interesting topics, in cyberspace. While it claims to be a neutral technology based platform, there have been accusations of bias in the way it applies its rules.

At the core of the issue seems to be twitter’s crackdown on two issues. The first is the problematic case of fake accounts. Under pressure from lawmakers in the USA, EU, and other countries to crack down on fake accounts that spread fake news, twitter deleted over 70 million accounts last year that it claimed were fake. Amongst those impacted by this clean up were Indian twitterati who saw their follower count drop drastically. This impacted some more than others – people with higher follower counts lost more than those with fewer followers. This is when the first calls of systematic bias began. People on the right said they lost more followers than people on the left.  Also in it’s attempt to weed out fakes, twitter suspended parody accounts that were spreading hate.

The second issue is more critical. Twitter, under fire, for doing nothing to stop abuse on its platform began applying rules against those who use their timelines to spread abuse and hate. A fair number of accounts got suspended on this. Twitter claims that it has been impartial in dealing with abusers, saying “Abuse and hateful conduct comes from accounts across the ideological spectrum and we will continue to take action when our rules are broken”.  However, both sides of the political spectrum claim that twitter has targeted their members for the purge, while leaving the other side untouched.

In the UK, for example, over 70 prominent members of the left had their accounts suspended without adequate reason. In the United States those impacted were primarily supporters of Mr Trump, and the American President took to twitter to complain about this. And, in India the suspensions have primarily impacted the right wing – although members from the left have also found themselves kicked out of the social network. The rules that lead to suspension seem to be applied in a not so transparent way – with some people getting away with calls for murder and rape, and others not penalised at all.  Twitter claims that it is impartial, but that has not assuaged the followers of those who have faced suspension.

In the first decade of Twitter in India, the BJP and its supporters almost had a free run of the place, setting the tone and the agenda. However, in the last few years others have caught up, especially the Congress, with highly motivated social media supporters – leading to the share of voice of the right decreasing. It is possibly this loss of influence in agenda setting on twitter, coupled with what it sees as selective targeting of its members that has rankled the core support base of the BJP online, and led the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology to issue an invitation to Jack Dorsey – by all accounts it is not a summons – of Twitter to answer questions on how citizens’ rights will be safeguarded on the platform. The corporation declined stating that it was a too short a notice for their CEO to fly down, and suggested that the Indian team of twitter depose before the Parliamentary Standing committee, which was turned down. A new date of February 25th has been fixed, and the stand off continues.

There have been issues with the way both Facebook and Twitter have conducted themselves in various markets. They have been accused of not just helping spread fake news, but also rewarding those who lie. Not only that ,both have been guilty of allowing Russian bots to influence vital elections in much of the western world. Furthermore, they are both considered weak on allowing death threats, rape threats, and hate speech pass unchecked. There have been clamours for regulation of these two networks, in various countries. While technically both are supposed to follow the law of the land in which they operate – both have absolved themselves of much of the responsibility by claiming they are technology platforms that have little to do with content. And, while many of us may believe that those clamouring about bias are really whining loudly, the fact also remains that these platforms are answerable to the institutions of the nations in which they operate.

Large technology based social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter, have become de facto public utilities. And, the calls for regulation or governmental oversight have been aregular part of the calls to rein in the impact of these networks on society and politics. It is in this context that the Indian Parliamentary Standing Committee’s invitation to the Twitter high command has to be seen. You may not agree with the government, but Parliament is supreme, and its standing committees have the right to ask to be briefed by those who have an impact on polity and society.   

News Reporter

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