It is somewhat bemusing, if not annoying, to see a country of over 1.3 billion go into a tizzy over Twitter. But that’s exactly what the social media microblogging platform accomplished in the last few days in India.
The latest in a series of provocations was the removal of the “bluetick” verification mark of none other than the Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, on Saturday, June 5.
Why? According to Twitter company policy, an audit of dormant accounts might entail their de-verification. After hue and cry in mainstream media — and yes — on Twitter itself, the bluetick was restored in a couple of hours. Twitter, as is customary, did not care to extend an apology to the second highest office in the land.
By a strange coincidence, on the same day, several accounts of the top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were also de-verified. Again, after more rattling of chains and allegations of targeted malice, Twitter restored the blueticks. The evening news on all major television channels carried debates on whether Twitter was justified or not.
Twitter’s inconsistent policies
Curiously enough, Twitter had not de-verified the accounts of several deceased bluetick bearers. How could they be “active” if they were dead? And if someone else was handling their accounts, how could the “verified” tag remain? No convincing answers were forthcoming. Twitter has been accused of inconsistent policies throughout its 15-year existence.
Just a few days previously, Twitter’s offices in Gurugram (Gurgaon) were raided by the law enforcement agencies. Sources reported that the government was trying to ascertain the source of the so-called “Congress toolkit,” circulated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Dr Sambit Patra.
Patra had alleged that India’s main national opposition party, Congress, had created the toolkit to defame and malign Prime Minister Modi and the BJP.
Filing complaints against Patra, the Congress stoutly denied the charge, asserting that the toolkit was a BJP fabrication and concoction. The officials who went to inquire into these allegations were given short shrift by Twitter employees, who, in turn, accused the government of intimidation.
New rules and guidelines
On February 25, the Indian government’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had notified new rules and guidelines. The aim was to minimise fake news and harmful content on OTT (over-the-top) and social media platforms.
Multinational entertainment giants such Netflix and Amazon Prime, as well as tech behemoths such WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, were required to comply by May 26, 2021.
The guidelines included self-regulating and redressal mechanisms such as the appointment of resident compliance and grievance officers in India. As on date, all major companies doing business in India have complied except Twitter. WhatApp, separately, took the government to court over data protection and identities of original content posters.
What exactly is at stake? For the companies, India continues to be a major market, given the bans in China. WhatApp has close to 400 million users, more than the entire population of the United States. Facebook’s Indian users exceed 300 million. For Twitter, with 17.5 million users, India is its third largest market, after the US and Japan.
Social media and its global footprint
It is inconceivable that Twitter would risk losing this large, profitable, and growing segment of its global business. Given that compliance with the local laws is the sine qua non of global business, the most obvious question is what on earth is Twitter up to? Why doesn’t it fall in line?
The answer is simple. Twitter gains free publicity by taking on the Indian government. Just as it earned worldwide sympathy in most, and opprobrium in some quarters after deplatforming former US president Donald Trump, perhaps Twitter hopes to increase its support base by appearing to defy the new rules, also gaining brownie points in the process. All in the name of freedom of speech and expression, guaranteed by the Indian Constitution.
The government, on its part, has issued a “final warning” to Twitter. On the one hand, the Modi administration, already accused of trying to arm twist the press, will not wish to bully Twitter. On the other hand, it cannot condone or overlook Twitter’s non-compliance either.
Lack of accountability
Giant tech companies have become ‘meta-powers’, answerable to no one and quite opaque when it comes to their interests and operations. While the largest democracy in the world cannot afford to be seen as autocratic, it cannot allow a free rein to big tech either.
Too much is at stake, given the enormous power such platforms have to influence consumer, even voter, behaviour. The new IT rules in themselves appear quite reasonable, while Twitter’s calculated pushback is aimed at retaining its lack of accountability. Who will blink first?
Sooner or later, this standoff will have to be resolved. No one can get away with breaking rules. That would be tantamount to digital recolonisation, something that India will not tolerate. Modi government will do whatever is necessary to reassert India’s digital sovereignty.
Apart from the enormous, mostly negative, publicity which Twitter has garnered, it has also offended large sections of the populace. In the meanwhile, India’s answer to Twitter, the indigenous social networking platform, Koo, has crossed 6 million users. Whether it catches up with, even overtakes, Twitter, remains to be seen.
But once an alternative presents itself, the government will have no hesitation to go harder on those who defy its authority.
What seems initially like little more than a storm in a teacup may well turn out to be the iceberg that sank Twitter Titanic in India.
Makarand R. Paranjape
Makarand R. Paranjape is Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study. Views are personal.