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Twitter has been riding a tiger it can’t dismount

He’s the poster boy for tech titans who junked the typical boardroom suited CEO image for an avant-garde avatar. Whether sporting a Rick Owens leather bomber and the Goth-punk godfather’s post-apocalyptic sneakers at work or donning a slim suit while posing with Anna Wintour for the shutterbugs, Jack Dorsey has cemented the cult of the edgy, unorthodox and chilled-out Silicon Valley gurus, established by Steve Jobs.

However, the uber-cool fashion trailblazer cultivated by Dorsey, the self-appointed sultan of “free speech” and “freedom of expression” in his microblogging caliphate, grossly lacks something very important—ethics, which isn’t part of his chiffonier.

Dorsey’s head-on collisions in the oldest and the largest democracies in the world is a saga of Twitter’s disregard for ethics and its own policies and its weaponisation by the powerful to spread lies, disinformation, bigotry, hatred and settle political scores—all in the name of free speech and freedom of expression.

Twitter wields enormous power in the world of social media. Every tweet by a populist leader and the likes, retweets and quote tweets can set the news agenda of the day especially when such politicians bypass the traditional media.

Leaders like former US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have a massive army of followers, both online and offline, at their disposal. Before Twitter declared Trump a permanent pariah, he topped the list of global leaders with the most number of followers, at more than 88 million, followed by Modi—who now leads the chart with more than 68 million.

When such leaders or their policies are criticised by opposition parties or journalists and experts, several of their Twitter followers who are ultranationalists launch a blitzkrieg on the critics with their troll ammo. These bigoted hyper-nationalists, injected with steroids of hatred, racist or religious supremacy and belief in subjugation of the weak and minorities, help generate more traffic for Twitter with controversial and provocative #hashtags.

For years before and during his presidency, Trump used Twitter to spew bile against his political opponents, threaten world leaders, abuse women with his misogynistic barbs, cleave the US racially and politically, disseminate unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and a rigged election and finally incite a mob to siege the Capitol on January 6.

Under its hateful conduct policy, Twitter specifically prohibits “targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanise, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category” which includes “women and people of colour”. But Trump scorched several women, including The Huffington Post (now, HuffPost) cofounder Arianna Huffington as “unattractive” in 2012 and his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “crying lowlife” and “dog” in 2018 on Twitter, which neither flagged or remove them.

Trump continued to flagrantly violate Twitter’s violent threats policy, which clearly mentions that any account intending to inflict “violence on a specific person or group of people” or “threatening to seriously hurt someone and/or commit other violent act that could lead to someone’s death or serious physical injury” will be immediately and permanently suspended.

In 2018, Trump indirectly threatened leader Kim Jong-un with nuking North Korea by boasting he had a “much bigger & more powerful” N-button and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with suffering “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE”.

Trump deluged Twitter with a torrent of astounding lies and false claims in November 2020 over unfounded “voter fraud” and a “rigged election” as he realised losing his grip on the Oval Office to his Democratic bête noire Joe Biden. Flouting Twitter’s civic integrity policy with impunity, he shockingly claimed to have won the election despite results pointing to the contrary. Between November 3 and December 17, he flooded the platform with a staggering 729 tweets with 69% of them related to the election, according to stacker.com.

Trump’s fired a barrage of misleading tweets in November: “I will be making a statement tonight”, “A big WIN!”, “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”, “WE WILL WIN!”, “RIGGED ELECTION. WE WILL WIN!” and “I won the Election!” 

Every time Trump spouted an election disinformation on his favourite social media megaphone, Twitter helped amplify his messages by only flagging them with disclaimers despite its policy also calling for removal of “false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election”.

Dorsey was a mute spectator as far-right groups QAnon members, Proud Boys and Boogaloo Bois stormed Twitter with election conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric and planned the Capitol insurrection days in advance. 

Advance Democracy—an independent, non-partisan organisation that conducts global investigations to promote accountability, transparency, and good governance—reported that QAnon-related accounts tweeted 1,480 times between January 1 and January 6 calling for attacking the Capitol.  

When Twitter ultimately banned Trump “due to the ongoing tensions in the United States” and fearing his post-Capitol riot tweets could “be mobilised by different audiences, including to incite violence”, the reason was obvious: he wasn’t President anymore.  

In a series of deplorable and glib tweets a few days later, Dorsey’s regret at banning Trump was palpable when he questioned the correctness of the decision, which fragmented “the public conversation”, limited “the potential for clarification, redemption and learning”, set “a precedent I feel is dangerous” and “a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation”.

Dorsey’s hypocrisy in selective application of Twitter rules on popular demagogues like Trump and other controversial figures who attract a whopping amount of traffic to his site highlights the corporate culture of letting them get away with murder. For example, Twitter banned neo-Nazi and white supremacist Richard Spencer after the 2016 presidential election for his hate tweets only to reinstate his account with the reason as “violating its policy against having multiple, overlapping accounts”.

Here enters the torchbearer of free speech, Dorsey. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal in September 2018 revealed that the CEO often overrides last-minute decisions on bans by his staff. According to the investigation, he overturned Spencer’s ban and allowed far-right radio show host Alex Jones to continue on Twitter against the staff’s decision. 

In another country in another continent, another politician was galloping to popularity riding Twitter. Like Trump, Modi too had utilised the platform to mesmerise the masses. But unlike Trump, he never abused and threatened his detractors nor used sexist slurs. Instead, the Indian PM had used Twitter to carefully carve an altogether different image before the 2014 general elections—a tech-savvy, development-oriented, industry friendly, pro-poor, ant-corruption and a nationalist leader poised to take India to international recognition. 

Twitter encountered the same problem in India: trolls, abuses, threats and hate, not from Modi, but from several of his pumped-up followers. Loaded and cocked, the troll howitzers pounded critics of Modi and his policies, dissenters and the Opposition—especially, the Congress—with precision and savagery. The platform gave a free rein to such accounts with some of them also spreading fake news and propaganda and coining provocative and communal hashtags. The more controversial the hashtag, the more traffic it attracted.   

A study conducted by a Reddit user ‘/u/onosmosis’ in January 2020 claimed that 17,779 pro-BJP accounts spread misinformation and propaganda. For example, BJP’s IT cell’s national head Amit Malviya diffused disinformation to target the Congress and Shaheen Bagh protests only to either delete them later or get exposed by fact-checking website Alt News. 

In August 2017, Malviya’s tweet claiming that then-vice-president of the Congress Rahul Gandhi had visited the tainted Dera Sacha Sauda to garner support for the forthcoming Punjab Assembly polls was liked and retweeted around 500 times. After Alt News proved that Rahul had visited the influential Dalit organisation Dera Sach Khand Ballan, in Jalandhar, Malviya deleted the tweet. 

In January 2020, a joint investigation by Alt News and media outlet Newslaundry proved that a video tweeted by Malviya in which few people alleged Shaheen Bagh women were protesting for money was baseless.

Twitter allowed such accounts to post lies and fake news and incendiary statements. When the Election Commission of India asked Twitter to remove a post by BJP candidate Kapil Mishra in which he made an analogy between the February 8 Delhi Assembly elections and an India-Pakistan match, the social media giant said that it had “withheld” the tweet, but it was visible. 

While allowing the flood of communal hashtags, like #Coronajihad, #Tablighijamat, #Tablighi Jamaat Virus and other tweets demonising Muslims, to trend under its free speech policy, Twitter started getting sucked into the whirlpool of government control when opposition politicians, journalists and prominent personalities started criticising the government.

Mindful of the importance and potential of its third-biggest market, Modi’s popularity and government pressure, Twitter conveniently put its policy of “defending and respecting the user’s voice” on the backburner by withholding around 250 accounts, including that of media organisations, that tweeted on the farmers protests in February 2020. In April, 50 tweets critical of the government’s handling of the second Covid-19 wave were blocked.   

Twitter was ordered to blocks these accounts and tweets under Section 69A of the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, which states that the government can block online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence relating to above”. 

More than 9,800 URLs, accounts and web pages were blocked by the government under Section 69A in 2020, a massive increase of about 170% from 2019, according to the government.

Now, Twitter is caught in the vortex of the Information Technology (IntermediaryGuidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. 

Framed in exercise of powers under Section 87 (2) of the IT Act, social media intermediaries—like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and Google—will have to take down flagged content within 36 hours and also appoint a chief compliance officer, a nodal contact person and a resident grievance officer. In case of non-compliance, they will lose the protection, under Section 79 of the Act, from liabilities for any third-party information and data hosted by them. 

On May 25, a day before the rules came into effect, the Delhi Police Special Cell landed at the Twitter officer in Delhi and Gurgaon over flagging the posts of some BJP leaders containing an alleged ‘Congress Toolkit’ intended to malign Modi as “manipulated media”.

When Twitter expressed concern about “the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people” in India and “the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules”, the government retorted: “Stop beating around the bush and comply with the laws of the land.”

The entanglement with the government increased after Twitter refused to comply and only appointed an interim grievance redressal officer. Now, India has warned of withdrawing the liability protection if the platform doesn’t comply with the new rules. 

With 17.5 million users as of January, Twitter product lead Kayvon Beykpour said in March that India is among the fastest growing markets for the platform in the October-December quarter of 2020 as its monetisable daily active usage increased 74% year-on-year in the country during the period.

Dorsey is straddling two boats at the same time: ethics and profit. He panders to authoritarian leaders by showboating on free speech and making profit on one hand and strictly enforcing Twitter’s policies and rules on common users on the other. He can ban Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari for an ‘offensive’ tweet, but allow Trump to abuse his platform for four years.

Had Dorsey strictly banned threats, violence, bullying, misogyny, racism and communalism from day one, neither would have Trump weaponised Twitter nor would the Modi government pressure it on removing critical content. Dorsey should be reminded that selective application of free speech and policies on violence and hateful conduct results in a stalemate.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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