Social media is a distraction, which does not deserve so much noise and fury, whether from governments or the media
The government and Twitter disagree over the microblogging site’s apparent refusal to agree to amended information technology rules.
The fight is not without irony and contradictions: when the Modi government decided to withdraw Safe Harbor status from Twitter, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad initially pleaded for the decision in an article on Twitter. Prasad was just following what is now standard operating procedure for people in public life: using Twitter for quick one-way communication. In recent years, for government officials and politicians, Twitter has become a primary news story, and for journalists a news service.
Twitter is extremely convenient for politicians. In the old method of communication – the press conference – the ruling party and the opposition faced a flurry of questions from the assembled journalists. Today, politicians can tweet and trot, while giving the impression of dialogue and accessibility.
But if Twitter is so useful, why are politicians crossing party lines so furious at it? In the Parliament’s standing committee on computing last week, deputies allegedly “burned” Twitter officials.
The point is, Twitter is being given too much importance by politicians. Twitter is a chaotic echo chamber, which is not a source of verified information. Journalists have repeatedly fallen into Twitter traps, mistaking Netaji’s portrayal in Rashtrapati Bhavan for a fake, or video of a beating as a community incident. Twitter and social media simply do not provide the verified, reliable and responsible information that the media are required to provide.
There is also almost no evidence that Twitter influences election results in India. Rahul Gandhi is prolific on Twitter, but he failed to score for Congress even in the recent Kerala assembly elections where he is an MP.
A study by Joyojeet Pal and her team at the University of Michigan found that in the Bengal polls of 2021, while several winning candidates have active Twitter profiles, a large number of Twitter followers have little or no impact on eligibility – as evidenced by the defeat of various famous candidates. BJP’s social media campaigns have cut little ice in Bengal. Elections are always based on the playing field of the parties and the popularity of the leaders.
So why has Twitter suddenly acquired such serious national importance? One big reason is the change in Twitter stories. For years the BJP has totally dominated social media, Prime Minister Modi was one of the first politicians to join Twitter, as early as 2009, and use it effectively in his communications. Now, however, the opposition is catching up and critical dissenting voices are becoming just as aggressive, especially because the Covid era does not allow physical protests.
This surge in opposition on Twitter sparked selective anger reactions. A tweet from Congress spokesman Pawan Khera comparing the Centre’s response to different religious gatherings has been withdrawn at the request of the government. But when a tweet from BJP spokesman Sambit Patra was called “manipulated media,” Delhi police went to Twitter offices to ask why and Union ministers shouted at the scandal.
Ruling parties of all types tend to be just as intolerant. During the years of the UPA, the infamous Section 66A of the (now defunct) Information Technology Act was used to target a Mumbai-based cartoonist and a Kolkata University professor.
The government woke up late to Twitter’s wrongs. No one has heard from the Informatics Ministry when for years hate speech and threats of rape and murder, especially against women, have been broadcast on Twitter’s “hate factory” or when a Twitter account ‘followed’ by top netas used words that were harmful to journalist Gauri Lankesh when she was shot in 2017.
Today, in a pandemic where Twitter is amplifying critical voices, the government has taken action. The lesson here is that those who live on Twitter are also at risk of being tagged by Twitter.
With millions of tweets posted from around the world in real time, Twitter is an indomitable beast, an amoral technology. Twitter can be used by ruling parties and governments. But it can also be used by opposition parties and protesters. Twitter can be used to provide health care in the event of a pandemic, it can also be used to stir up common feelings and spread hatred.
The main burden of supervision and regulation falls on the tech giant itself, which must act against hate speech and fake news. Twitter itself must ensure that the freedom it offers is not abused and that its service does not sink into crime, causing offline bloodshed and civil unrest. The geeks and nerds who created Twitter have a responsibility to make sure their networks don’t wreak havoc by putting in place a strong mechanism of self-regulation. Their failure opened a window for politicians to step in.
However, when politicians attempt to control Twitter, there are dangers of partisan censorship and real threats to free speech. Trying to silence democratic gossip under the guise of “law and order” is an abuse of constitutional freedoms. Enough laws already exist to control hate speech by individuals and groups under the existing penal code: the danger lies when these laws are misused as weapons by a local thana police to settle political scores or to muzzle dissenting voices.
If politicians are angry with social media, the solution is not in the role of super-cop and super-censor, but in creating a regulatory ecosystem with all stakeholders, without brutal intervention from the big states. .
Those in public life must accept that social media is a double-edged sword, the hand that feeds itself bites too. Hillary Clinton describes social media as an algorithm-based conspiracy theory rabbit hole. People are getting more and more addicted to it because it’s like watching constant car crashes, but it can make you vulnerable to fake news, hyper-polarization, and steer you away from the realities of the field.
Excessive use of social networks is detrimental to health. For sound governance and healthy public discourse, Twitter “trends” and hashtags should be treated simply as the surround sound of democracy. Nothing more.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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