Earlier this week, Sambit Patra, the national spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tweeted out the recently surfaced toolkit, a five-page document, that was alleged as a creation of the Indian National Congress.
While thousands of handles have shared the document in the form of images, yesterday (20 May), Twitter started labelling many of those tweets as ‘manipulated media’. To skip the technical mumbo-jumbo, Twitter labelled the entire toolkit and its alleged Congress allegiance as a lie.
If the definition of Twitter is to be taken at face value, any tweet that is deceptively altered or fabricated and can impact public safety and cause serious harm is most likely to be labelled as manipulative or in some cases could be removed.
The green light for the move to label any tweet can be derived from a fact-check conducted by a few websites or portals empanelled by Twitter. There is also a possibility that Twitter itself chooses to censor certain content, based on internal research and regulation. The mechanism remains unclear and without transparency and accountability.
In January this year, Twitter suspended the account of former US president Donald Trump in the wake of the violence at the US Capitol. Explaining the move on Twitter, the CEO of the platform, Jack Dorsey, stated that the call was taken after having the "best information available".
The thread was startling for many reasons. Firstly, Dorsey stated clearly that if people did not agree with the rules and their enforcement, they should opt for another platform. Two, he stated that even if it may feel the same, a company (Twitter, in this context) choosing to moderate itself was not the same as the government restricting access to information, thus making for a convenient escape.
This is where the problem of Big Tech interference in domestic politics begins. Twitter or any other website like Google, Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram included), Amazon, and Apple may want to underrate their importance to digital communication to make a tough call, it does not absolve them of ensuring an open and transparent platform.
The Big Tech today plays an important role in government communication, and therefore access to information critical for citizens. This includes informal communication from the political parties, companies, individuals and other social entities, and also all forms of official outreach, from the president or the prime minister to the law enforcement agency responsible for local issues.
For them to excuse themselves out of an explanation by saying it's a business decision is unacceptable.
Furthermore, it goes beyond social media communication. Google and Apple, by virtue of their monopoly on the mobile application market, can tomorrow censor any app from any department or level of the government. Amazon or Microsoft may deny clients access to web services or censor them altogether if they do not agree with their political ideology.
Facebook can go ahead and ban the ability of any entity, political party or company, to run ads or marketing campaigns across all its platforms, citing arbitrary reasons. Twitter is already censoring tweets and could do the same for live streams and media. Google could restrict visibility to articles that advocate the cause of one political ideology while amplifying the other.
Simply put, if Big Tech wants to interfere with national politics, it can, in ways unimaginable.
This is where the problem begins.
Assuming Twitter uses internal research or the best information at its disposal, what is the mechanism that is followed to censor or label any tweet? Are the creators of the tweet reached out to? Are they given the warning to explain themselves or the contents of their tweet? Does the information factor in the context of the tweet and compare it with data from the last few months or years, wherever necessary?
Assuming Twitter uses the services of a third-party fact-checking service, what procedure is in place to determine the ideal fact-checker? How is the political neutrality of the fact-checker determined? How does one ensure that the fact-checker sets the right precedent by verifying every political tweet ever made? Can a fact-checker censor a tweet that attacks bitcoin for its volatility? Can a fact-checker attack an individual for their political beliefs (yes, obviously)?
The censorship of certain accounts and labelling of tweets is on the same patterns we witnessed in the United States in the run-up to the presidential elections of 2020. Tweets from Trump were censored, called out as manipulated, or labelled as warranting a fact-check. Eventually, it ended at Twitter, arbitrarily, throwing out Trump.
As the author argued in this article last year, can Twitter decode that one ‘absolute truth’ for all the 6,000 tweets made per second, around 360,000 tweets per minute, for every 500 million tweets made in a day and for every 200 billion tweets made every year?
They cannot, obviously, and that is where the labelling of Sambit Patra’s tweet becomes a problem.
By conveniently labelling one tweet, a social media platform, independently or influenced by a fact-checker, demeans, disregards, and dismisses the perspective of one side. This can harm a political party, a government, a company, and an individual.
Two, when the tweet in question is disputed information, the context becomes important, and a platform cannot get into the interpretation business for the context of every word or media posted on the platform.
Three, selective fact-checking also creates an incorrect perception that can be skewed against one political, economic, cultural, social, or regional side.
This labelling business simply celebrates the idea of selling incomplete interpretations to define an entire conversation. From politics to economics and from national issues to local ones, this practice can prove to be dangerous.
Also, can Twitter act as both a portal and an editor? If it wants to act like the latter, can it be held accountable for arbitrary censorship decisions?
Assuming this trend is allowed, can tomorrow Internet service providers be both a service host and a regulator of what websites people can visit? Can Google and Apple do that with apps? Where does one draw the line for self-proclaimed editors?
The consequences of Big Tech interfering in politics are immense. Given India will be home to a billion Internet users by 2024, this interference can facilitate, intentionally or otherwise, peddling of fake narratives, suppressing perspectives of one side, influencing voters, censoring voices of journalists, and amplifying causes that align with the interests of the Big Tech.
The government of India must nip this problem in the bud. If the Modi government can go as far as banning Huawei and ZTE from India’s 5G trials, there is no reason why they cannot hold Twitter accountable for its arbitrary actions, from banning accounts professing their centre-right political ideology to labelling tweets without factoring in the entire political context.
Should Twitter be banned right away in India as many hysterical users are quick to demand?
Should Twitter and the entire Big Tech community be held accountable for their indulgence and interference in issues of national politics and policies?
Yes, before it is too late.
Twitter may want to think of itself as another average company operating in India, but its reach and importance in digital communication say otherwise.
However, if they want to moderate and regulate content like a normal company, nothing is stopping and wrong with the government of India banning the company and consequently the platform, for it is just another company.
Dorsey, in his thread post-Trump account suspensions, stated that people can choose any other Internet service. Modi government, citing the same thread and logic, can ask Dorsey to find any other free market of a billion potential users as well.
Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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