The introduction of the printing press in 15th century Europe revolutionised the social landscape, helping information spread further and faster than ever before. Among the most profound revolutions sparked by the printing press was in the sphere of politics, as books, newspapers and magazines became critical vehicles for the propagation of radical ideas. Social media represents a similar paradigm shift, intensifying the manner in which political ideas are being debated .
Unfortunately, much of this change has been mired in controversy. Nothing represents this more than the role of Twitter in Indian democracy, which occupies a central space in Indian politics. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, for example, has built its online presence keeping the microblogging platform at the core. The party’s highly organised IT Cell often works furiously in order to make hashtags “trend” – Twitter’s term for a popular topic that is displayed prominently on a part of the website. Other parties like the Congress have tried to catch up with the BJP, in turn spending time pushing its topics on Twitter.
Measured in terms of number of users, Twitter in India is small. Yet, this inordinate political focus makes it uniquely influential. In addition to Twitter being vital to the strategies of political parties, Indian journalists often decide what stories to run based on what’s being discussed on the platform. The subjects that are are “trending” on the social media website carry disproportionate influence in the world offline too.
Unfortunately, Twitter has not treated this responsibility with the care it deserves. Hate speech abounds on the website. Even more troublingly, allegations have been made that Twitter has a bias in favour of majoritarian hate.
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Sanjay Hegde, a prominent Supreme Court, lawyer had his account permanently suspended for tweeting out a well-known Hindi poem “Hang Him”. Activists have also pointed to other cases of arbitrary suspensions, accusing Twitter of having a caste and communal bias.
Against these arbitrary examples are juxtaposed cases where Twitter has turned a stubbornly blind eye to extreme cases of majoritarian hate. In one instance, a handle followed by the prime minister, took to mocking the faith of a two-year old Christian toddler who had died in an accident. Other cases have seen verified Twitter handles call for ethnic cleansing. Another recent Twitter trend saw a call to boycott India’s Muslims. Twitter took no action in any of these egregious cases of majoritarian hate.
So extreme is Twitter that in March, Maria Abi-Habib, the New York Times’ South Asia correspondent, tweeted out that she has received more hate messages since she she was posted in new Delhi than she did in five years of covering ISIS and Al Qaeda. Given her Arabic language name, trolls often mistake her for being Muslim.
While social media websites might give the impression of being impartial, passive mediums of communication, nothing could be further from the truth. Take the case of Twitter’s “trending bar”. It is well known that trends are routinely manipulated by political parties and their highly organised IT cells. For example, in October, as the hashtag that called for a boycott of Indian Muslims trended, the Huffington Post found that many prominent users associated with the BJP had promoted it.
Give that Twitter knowingly persists with these features, it makes the website itself complicit in the spread of hate speech.
Similar doubts about the role of Twitter are raised when the website takes strong action against people critical of the government but seems to go into limbo when confronted with majoritarian hate speech.
This is not the first time that Twitter has been accused of suppressing speech and spreading hate. In countries like the United States and Britain, Twitter has also been accused of pandering to Far Right, majoritarian voices. And much like how Twitter India condones the stifling of speech, it does the same in the Arab world, allowing trolls and bot armies pushed by the government to drown out opposition voices.
Social media started off with the promise of greater democratisation and progressive change. But the way social media websites like Twitter are behaving in India, they might end up being reduced to a tool for the powerful to silence inconvenient voices.