Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, headed by MP Anurag Thakur has summoned Twitter India officials to hear the views of Ministry of Electronics & IT and Twitter to understand how the fundamental rights of citizens of India could be safeguarded on social media platforms.
Twitter has an official policy of shadow-banning. And if the falling performance of twitter accounts of Prime Minister’s office (Of India) and PM Narendra Modi are any signs, even these accounts are right now shadow-banned.
Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg & Sundar Pichai have been called, in recent past, by House and Senate Committees in US to testify against generally agreed accusation of “politically biased” management of their businesses. Facebook has been called by many Parliamentary bodies across the world after its dirty secret regarding Cambridge Analytica was whistleblown.
These large-scale, first-generation social media giants are accused of manipulating public perception unfairly to effect democratic elections in the US and other countries are rightly worried that if these American companies dared to interfere in the elections in their own country, nothing stops them from doing the same or worse in other countries.
Arrogance of petty men running giant social media platforms
Social media turned out to be a weapon of mass propaganda too quickly and unexpectedly. Technology has moved too fast, since the explosion of internet and arrival of big data. Even the regular users of such social media products hardly understand the technology, propaganda or intent behind a lot of stuff they come across. In that scenario, most of the lawmakers across the world are more worried and less equipped to deal with this sudden crisis. They are so ill-equipped that even in US, when the Congressmen and Senators ask questions to the head-honchos of these large SM Platforms, they usually ask meaningless and often ridiculous questions. Because they don’t even know what they should be asking these SM platform bosses, for most questions, all three – Jack, Mark & Sundar – have conveniently promised to answer the question raised “later” separately.
These men are technology giants, no doubt, but they are petty men when it comes to understanding the responsibilities they have to the human societies worldwide. They have found a weapon to “push” the entire world in a direction that they have a personal bias for. And they are doing so with impunity, hiding behind technicalities, shying away from any moral responsibilities and lawmakers are unable to do anything about this new phenomenon.
China foresaw the flaws in letting a social media platform run by foreign companies operate deeply into their country. India, its neighbour and an aspiring super-power, with the responsibility of conducting world’s largest free & fair general elections in April 2019, failed to identify this problem early on and now has to deal with a menace it hardly understands. While political parties used these SM platforms for campaigning over the last 5-6 years, they are just beginning to discover the dangers of having foreign platforms run so deep into the country. In the Second World War, enemies would print pamphlets with crafty messages and airdrop them to run propaganda, in this new world, they can suppress voices of one side and play up the other side with a clock of few buttons.
Both Twitter & FB are accused internationally of projecting & enforcing their promoters’ bias on democratic process of countries they operate in. And they do so with impunity. Like millions of users worldwide, all that India has is scores of users who can “experientially” tell that their voice is being suppressed. But without access to the algorithms, any deposition by the representatives of Twitter or Facebook will be their word against the words of complainants or the lawmakers. Mark Zuckerberg himself proposed a “Full Audit” to understand what Cambridge Analytica was upto, when he was faced with a question from Senator Amy Klobuchar. Here is the video of Mark’s response:
Also, India has to ascertain the laws under which it expects course correction from these SM giants. Unless they can prove that a law has been broken, all the screaming and shouting & Parliamentary hearings will make no difference. Further, necessary and unambiguous regulations that do not become an entry barrier for new entrants, while they regulate the existing players reasonably, may also be acutely necessary.
Violation of Article 19, by way of suppression of voices of one set of people by mainstream media houses is a difficult thing to prove because essentially whatever is said on mainstream media is said by reporters. However, on social media platforms, it is the common people who express their opinions directly, and suppression of their voices is clearly the violation of rights under Article 19. At the same time, interfering with rights under Article 19, has to be understood in the light of the “purpose”. Govt also bans free speech at times, but the purpose is protection of certain national interests, like social peace, territorial integrity, national security and such. But when the “purpose” behind violation of “free” speech is interference with the democratic process of the country, to shape it on the basis of biases, which may be natural or commercial, then the whole action becomes far too serious and has to be dealt with the kind of severity that any other person waging the war on the nation would suffer.
We have to remember, this is not the first time these social media giants have faced these allegations. They are repeat offenders who have till now gone free because the governments worldwide are ill-equipped to deal with this menace.
What should MEIT demand?
In order to investigate and empirically prove that the experiences of thousands or lakhs of people with respect to biased behaviour on Twitter and Facebook, Ministry of Electronics and IT must demand access to algorithms that are at work in Twitter and Facebook. Both will refuse. But government must push for it, going to the extent of threatening discontinuity of their services till government has access to the algorithms at play.
Government must also review various suppressive action taken by Twitter & FB, based on user complaints. They should find out if the reasons given for suspending certain accounts had any substance at all.
At the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani flagged increasing data colonisation by global corporations. The attack on democratic processes is on of the first signs of how data colonisation affects us. I would like to leave the readers with this statement made by Mark Zuckerberg in the US Senate. When Dan Sullivan asked Mark, if Facebook is too powerful, Mark said, “A vast majority of these users were outside US…and that’s the real competitive and strategic threat that American Technology Policy should be thinking about.” I leave it to the readers to judge the severity of the situation.