A few months after the Indian government appeared to have gone to war with Twitter, the American social media platform is in the news again for its impact on Indian politics. Except this time, the accusations are flying from another part of the political spectrum.
Over the last few days, Twitter has locked at least 30 accounts connected to the Congress, India’s principal Opposition party. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has called this an “attack on democracy.”
The difference between the two situations is important, as is the context.
BJP vs Twitter
In May, as the sheer scale of its Covid-19 mismanagement became clear, the Bharatiya Janata Party decided to take issue with a label that Twitter slapped on its propaganda, describing the material as “manipulated media”.
Incensed that it was not free to propagate what fact-checkers had concluded were untruths, the BJP and the Indian government decided to take on Twitter from multiple angles, including having the police turn up at the company’s office. This was months after the government had threatened to jail Twitter employees, at that time because the company was refusing to block criticism of the handling of India’s massive farmer protests.
On multiple fronts, these moves were part of the BJP’s broader efforts to make sure that the only narrative available to Indians – whether in the news media or on social media – was the party line. That’s no exaggeration: Remember, it was in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic that ministers of the government took the time out to discuss how to “neutralise” independent media and anyone raising questions.
Congress vs Twitter
This time around, the actions seemed to be a reaction to an official move. The National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights shot off a letter to Twitter calling for action against Rahul Gandhi’s account, after the former Congress president’s handle posted a photo that revealed the identity of the family of a nine-year-old Dalit girl, who was allegedly raped, murdered and forcibly cremated in Delhi.
India has strict laws against revealing the identity of minor rape victims, even if they are dead. The law and subsequent judicial interpretations of it have made it clear that using the names or photos of rape victims or their families is illegal – unless explicit permission has been given by a special court or sessions judge.
That means that, even though the family in this case appeared to willingly meet with Rahul Gandhi, his decision to reveal their identities through a photo online was against the law. Moreover, a statutory body has written to Twitter about the matter, giving it an additional impetus to act against the tweets.
As a result, Twitter locked Rahul Gandhi’s account – and told the politician that it would only be unlocked if he took down the post. Evidently, Gandhi has refused to, and many others in the party chose instead to once again post the same photo, only to find their own accounts – including that of the Congress itself – facing the same restrictions.
The Congress has put forward two arguments for its actions.
One, it has insisted that the rules about not revealing a victim’s identity were never meant to prevent the family from speaking up and calling for justice. Nikhil Alva, an aide to Gandhi, argued on Facebook that by twisting the law to apply in this way, the BJP was saying that “the media must not cover these stories and certainly never allow the parents of a victim to appear on camera”.
Two, it has argued that the rules are inconsistently applied, pointing to BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malviya’s Twitter account that appeared to carry a similar infraction dating back to October 2020 – but did not lead to similar action from the social media company.
Gandhi has since gone on to allege that the action against his account is “an attack on the democratic structure of our country” and that “Twitter is not a neutral and objective platform. It is a biased platform. It listens to what the government of the day says.”
India vs social media
The central difference in the two positions is this: The BJP argues that Twitter has to listen to the government – and the ruling party – no matter what. The Congress is arguing that the law in question is bad, and that it is being selectively used to target anyone criticising the government.
Yet both seem to converge on the same conclusion: That Twitter has an outsize role in Indian politics, and that its decisions have political consequences and yet are made with little transparency or accountability.
This is a global problem and not one limited to Twitter. It is why, for example, Facebook set up an oversight board – what many are calling the Facebook Supreme Court – to bring transparency and legitimacy to its content moderation decisions.
These concerns were also the reason India unveiled new rules for internet intermediaries earlier this year, which have been described as “anti-democratic and unconstitutional” for their potential impact on privacy and freedom of speech, and in particular how they open the space for increased political control over the digital ecosystem.
The BJP has, for many years now, been pushing the idea that the social media networks impinge on India’s digital sovereignty and will have to listen to the Indian government – including blocking criticism – if they want to continue operating in this country. Its efforts have undoubtedly been successful, as has been clear from the behaviour of Facebook, which on multiple occasions has been shown to side with the BJP even at the cost of violating its own internal rules against things like hate speech.
Twitter was generally seen as being a bit more independent, not least because it has a much smaller economic footprint in India than Facebook – giving the government less leverage. But the very public showdown with the government earlier this year undoubtedly had some sort of effect.
What remains unclear is why the Congress chose this action, wherein the law is quite clear, to stake its ground against the social network.
Selective targeting is certainly an issue for these companies, since human-led content moderation teams will never be able to take down everything that violates their rules or even the country’s laws, leaving open the space for arbitrary action. As such, the need for transparency, predictability and accountability in the actions of social media networks is evident.
Meanwhile, the party’s principled stance – that the aim of the law against revealing rape victims identities was never meant to apply in cases like this – may be a reasonable one. Yet it is hard to argue that Twitter is the right authority to decide that it will not apply the law. Even if one accepts that statutory bodies or even the judiciary are unlikely to provide fair rulings, is it the belief of those in the Congress that social media companies should be independently interpreting Indian law?
Either way, the Congress decision to attribute these actions to Twitter’s bias is a clear indication that questions about the role played by social media networks in India political life are only going to get louder.
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