By Na Vijayashankar
An interesting development took place on social media recently. Twitter put out a message on its blog addressed to the government, and this was responded to on Koo, an Indian micro-blogging app.
The latest surge of people moving to Koo started in the first week of February 2021. A stage was reached where TV news anchors popularised the use of Twitter for discussion of political debates. I had then advocated that the time had come to switch to an Indian blogging app.
Now the new trend is “Watch Twitter” and “Post on Koo”. Over a period of time, this will create one stream of opinion on Koo, while the other may continue on Twitter. If somebody wants to respond on one platform, they have to at least view the other one too. Perhaps common hashtags will be used on both platforms for debating. This is a strange situation where both may see an increase in hits. But the number of active users on Twitter and retweets could see a significant downtrend. Twitter will remain predominantly a medium to reach audiences outside India, while Koo would be the preferred platform to reach out to an Indian audience.
For a long time, terrorists in India have misused freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution. Similarly, we will see many Twitter handles now being used to criticise Twitter and perhaps many Koo handles to criticise Koo.
The popularity of Twitter was centred around politics and the interest in politics was inherently regional. But of late, Twitter was used by some foreign celebrities to tweet about Indian developments. This raised the question whether these tweets were fake or whether these celebrities were paid to do so.
While it is fine for two Indians to debate and argue over contentious political issues, when a citizen of another country joins the discussion, it vitiates it, and takes a “national” or “anti-national” dimension. As an Indian, my interest in whether Democrats have committed a fraud and won the elections in the US can only be an opinion of an outsider; it cannot be part of a heated debate with American voters who may have a strong view of their own. I must know my limits before commenting on such issues. Similarly, American pop singers and juvenile activists need to be circumspect while commenting on the farm law agitation because they do not know the reality.
Showing cross-border interest in politics is inherently an issue that will raise the “anti-national” rhetoric. Whether an Indian comments on Imran Khan or a Pakistani comments on Narendra Modi, it is a cross-border attack and if it crosses the limits of decency, each country has the right to be annoyed.
While the Indo-Pakistani information war was based on historical enmity and to some extent religion, the current controversy where a Rihanna or Greta Thunberg or Meena Harris are involved was driven more by the commercialisation of celebrities on Twitter handles. Many of these handles are operated by PR firms, and tweets and retweets are done for money. This “Tweet for Cash” had eroded the credibility of Twitter as a medium of independent crowd-sourced news.
With people now keeping a watch on the two platforms and posting on the one of their choice, perhaps there will be some order to the chaos. Instead of trolling on the same platforms, people will “cross troll”. This could reduce the intensity of the impact of trolls and in the long run, reduce it to an extent. Only serious counter opinions may get expressed and trolls for the sake of trolling would reduce. This would be a welcome development.
The Indian government first tried to regulate the propaganda on Twitter through Intermediary Guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000/8 with a recommended amendment to them. But it succumbed to the verbal assault from the opposition and did not push through the notification. Now when the new Personal Data Protection Bill is passed, there will be another attempt to regulate the “Verification of Social Media handles” which would put the brakes on unrestricted growth of fake accounts on social media.
While on Facebook the menace of fake accounts surfaced as cyber crimes, on micro blogging platforms like Twitter, it surfaced as an attempt to mould political opinions. However, if there is nobody to listen to my opinion or counter opinion, I will have to stop commenting. In the Twitter warfare, as long as there was no alternative, both sides used it to fight. This created friction and added fuel to the controversy. The beneficiary was the platform, which could claim more traffic and therefore, get more revenue from advertisements.
Now there will be separate platforms on which different views can be expressed and only cross platform users will know and be able to react to counter views. This will cool down passions and make these platforms more useful to the community.
Twitter has reached a point of no return as it is taking on the policies of the Indian government directly at the promoter level, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey liking the tweets of Rihanna and also joining hands with Indian black money supporters to promote cryptocurrencies, which the government of India is committed to ban. It is no longer a subtle war between Twitter supporters and the government and it seems that the Twitter management is taking up leadership in this war. In its latest statement, Twitter said: “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted.”
Twitter, therefore, clearly thinks that it is the conscience-keeper for the protection of fundamental rights of Indian citizens. But Twitter policies of granting “verified status”, some of which are given to AI algorithms and PR firms, are flawed and its intentions, suspect. The government’s response on Koo to Twitter is, therefore, a historic moment in social media. However, this has to be taken to the logical conclusion and the government has to quickly come up with regulation for social media so that accountability is built into freedom of speech.
This can be done by fast tracking the Personal Data Protection Bill or by even coming out with a regulatory guideline under Section 79 of ITA 2000 on social media platforms similar to the notifications available on cyber cafes and matrimonial websites. This action can be taken at the departmental level and has to be expedited.
—The writer is a cyber law and techno-legal information security consultant based in Bengaluru