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Social media is a distraction, undeserving of so much sound and fury, whether from govts or the media

Government and Twitter are at loggerheads over the seeming refusal of the microblogging site to agree to changed information technology rules.

The tussle is not without irony and contradictions: when the Modi government decided to withdraw Twitter’s safe harbour status, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad argued for the decision in a Twitter post first. Prasad was only following what is now standard operating procedure for those in public life: using Twitter for quick one-way communication. For the last few years, for government officials and politicians, Twitter has become a first information report, and for journalists a news wire service.

Uday Deb

Twitter is extremely convenient for politicians. In the older method of communication – the press conference – governing party and opposition faced a volley of questions from gathered reporters. Today politicians can tweet and scoot, and yet still give the impression of dialogue and accessibility.

But if Twitter is so useful, why are politicians cutting across party lines so incensed with it? In the Parliament standing committee on IT last week, MPs reportedly “grilled” Twitter officials.

The thing is, Twitter is being given far too much importance by political VIPs. Twitter is a chaotic echo chamber, which is not a source of verified information. Journalists have repeatedly fallen into Twitter traps, mistaking Netaji’s portrait at Rashtrapati Bhavan as fake, or a video of a beating as a communal incident. Twitter and social media simply do not provide fact-checked, reliable and accountable information that media outlets are duty bound to provide.

There’s also almost no evidence that Twitter influences election results in India. Rahul Gandhi is prolific on Twitter but he failed to score for Congress even in recent Kerala assembly elections where he is an MP.

A study by Michigan University’s Joyojeet Pal and team has found that in 2021 Bengal polls, while several winning candidates have active Twitter profiles, a large Twitter following has little or no impact on electability – as shown by the defeat of various celebrity candidates. BJP’s social media campaigns cut little ice in Bengal. Elections still turn on parties’ ground game and popularity of leaders.

So why has Twitter suddenly acquired such grave national importance? An important reason is changing Twitter narratives. For years BJP totally dominated social media, PM Modi was one of the first politicians to join Twitter, as early as 2009, and use it effectively in communications. Now, however, opposition is catching up and dissenting critical voices are becoming equally aggressive, particularly because Covid times do not allow physical protests.

This rise of the opposition on Twitter has triggered selectively angry responses. A tweet from Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera comparing the Centre’s response to different religious gatherings was taken down on a government demand. But when a tweet from BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra was tagged as “manipulated media”, Delhi Police visited Twitter offices to ask why and Union ministers cried foul.

Governing parties of all types tend to be similarly intolerant. In the UPA years, the notorious Section 66A of the IT Act (now scrapped) was used to target a Mumbai-based cartoonist and a Kolkata university professor.

The government has awakened belatedly to Twitter’s wrongs. No one heard from the IT ministry when for years hate speech and threats of rape and murder, particularly against women, were circulated on the Twitter “hate factory”, or when a Twitter handle ‘followed’ by top netas used noxious words for journalist Gauri Lankesh when she was shot dead in 2017.

Today, in a pandemic when Twitter is amplifying critical voices, the government has been galvanised into action. The lesson here is, those who live by Twitter, are also at the risk of getting scarred by Twitter.

With millions of tweets posted from all over the world in real time, Twitter is an untamable beast, an amoral technology. Twitter can be used by governing parties and by governments. But it can also be used by opposition parties and protesters. Twitter can be used to source healthcare in a pandemic, it can also be used to fan communal sentiments and spread hate.

The primary onus to control and regulate is on the tech giant itself, which must act against hate speech and fake news. Twitter itself must make sure that the freedom it provides is not abused and its service doesn’t descend into criminality, causing offline bloodshed and civil strife. Geeks and nerds who created Twitter have a responsibility to make sure their networks don’t wreak havoc by putting in place a robust self-regulatory mechanism. Their failure has opened a window for the politicians to step in.

However when politicians attempt to control Twitter there are dangers of partisan censorship and real threats to free speech. Attempting to silence the democratic chatter under the guise of “law and order”, is an abuse of constitutional freedoms. There are already enough laws to control hate speech by individuals and groups under the existing penal code: The danger lies when those laws are misused as weapons by a local police thana to settle political scores or to gag dissenting voices.

If politicians are angry with social media, the solution doesn’t lie in playing super-cop and super-censor but in creating a regulatory ecosystem with all stakeholders, free of heavy-handed Big State intervention.

Those in public life need to accept that social media is a double-edged sword, the hand that feeds, also bites. Hillary Clinton describes social media as an algorithm-driven conspiracy theory rabbit hole. People get increasingly addicted to it because it’s like watching constant car crashes, but it can make you vulnerable to fake news, hyper-polarisation and tear you away from ground realities.

Excessive use of social media is injurious to health. For rational governance and sane public discourse, Twitter ‘trends’ and hashtags should be treated simply as democracy’s surround sound. Nothing more.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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