Of late, social media companies have presumptuously transmogrified from being mere internet platforms enabling people to connect and share their views to an arbitrary adjudicator and regulator of the content that goes on their portals. The growing popularity and pervasiveness of social media platforms have deluded them into believing that they hold the absolute power to exercise control and regulate the thoughts of users on their platforms.
Recently, Facebook and Instagram removed a fact-check posted on them by PIB Fact-Check, the fact-checking arm of the Press Information Bureau of the Government of India. On May 25, Facebook and Instagram had taken down a fact-check post by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), in which it had debunked a false claim linking the COVID-19 vaccines to imminent death.
The PIB Fact-Check handle on Facebook and Twitter had shared a fact-check rebutting the claim attributed to French Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier that people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 will die in the next two years.
The post was doing the rounds on the internet and considering the nature of the post, fuelling vaccine hesitancy among people. The PIB Fact-Check attached the image of the alleged claim in its post and said: “An image allegedly quoting a French Nobel Laureate on #COVID19 vaccines is circulating on social media… The claim in the image is #FAKE… #COVID19 Vaccine is completely safe… Do not forward this image.”
An image allegedly quoting a French Nobel Laureate on #COVID19 vaccines is circulating on social media— PIB Fact Check (@PIBFactCheck) May 25, 2021
The claim in the image is #FAKE. #COVID19 Vaccine is completely safe
Do not forward this image#PIBFactCheck pic.twitter.com/DMrxY8vdMN
However, a day later, the post was removed by both platforms without offering any explanation. In fact, Facebook and Instagram not only deleted the posts but even went to the extent of warning the PIB account of permanent suspension if such a post is made again.
The PIB officials then reached out to the IT Ministry, complaining to them about the inexplicable behaviour of the two social media giants to remove a post that debunked a false claim doing the rounds on the internet. The IT Ministry in turn got in touch with the senior officials of the two social media organisations through a series of mails, protesting against the lack of transparency on appeals and the fact-checking process.
Following the IT Ministry’s intervention, the post was restored on both platforms. A senior Facebook official later said that the content was blocked by “mistake” but was later restored.
Twitter removes verified badges from the accounts of India’s Vice president M Venkaiah Naidu, Sanjay Dixit, RSS functionaries
The incident of Facebook and Instagram is another such incident that highlights the opaque methods employed by the social media websites to control the content on their platforms. Yesterday, Twitter abruptly removed the verified tick mark from the official account of India’s vice president, M Venkaiah Naidu. It was restored earlier this morning, with Twitter providing a spurious explanation for dropping the verified tick.
“The personal account of Venkaiah Naidu was inactive for six months and the blue badge has gone,” an official was quoted as saying by news agency ANI. However, there are several accounts that still have a verified tick despite being dormant for years. For instance, Gursimran Khamba and the All India Bakchod have been inactive for months but still, their accounts have retained the verified tick mark. In fact, Khamba has not tweeted for more than 6 years but his account still bears a verified tick.
Furthermore, this morning Twitter removed the verified tick of retired IAS officer Sanjay Dixit without providing any explanation for the same. In March this year, it had removed the verified ticks of various RSS functionaries and rendered no explanation for stripping them of their verifying badge.
The inherent bias of the social media platforms and their tendency of interfering in India’s politics
This has been the modus operandi of social media websites, most notably Twitter for some time now. They randomly suspend and block users and then offer unconvincing explanations such as ‘technical glitch’, ‘mistake’ or ‘oversight’ to play down their violations and prevent exemplary action taken against them. However, such ‘mistakes’ are only reserved for accounts related to a particular ideology, revealing the prejudice harboured by social media websites.
In December 2020, BJP IT Cell head Amit Malviya shared a video debunking the lies peddled by the Congress leaders. Malviya shared a video in response to an image shared by Rahul Gandhi wherein he insinuated that the police was beating up an old farmer.
The video showed that the law enforcement official who is portrayed in the image shared by Rahul Gandhi as beating up an old ‘farmer’ simply swung the baton in the air to scare the protester away. The baton did not touch the protester. Yet, several Congress leaders and the IT cell bot deceitfully shared the picture to paint the security official of using violence against the old farmer.
Malviya had shared a video to call out this treachery of the Congress leaders. However, his tweet was labelled by Twitter as ‘manipulated media’ while no such label was attached to scores of tweets posted by Congress leaders that carried the misleading picture.
A few months later, Congress IT cell head Rohan Gupta shared a cropped video from PM Modi’s rally in Assam on Twitter. PM Modi in the video had called out Congress formula of keeping the poor poor and exploiting them for electoral gains. However, the snippet shared by Gupta was carefully cropped to give an impression that PM Modi was advocating the exploitation of the poor for votes.
However, Twitter did not show the same alacrity in labelling Gupta’s tweet as manipulated media. Even though Malviya had only debunked the misleading claim made by Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders, his tweet was marked as manipulated but the Congress IT head sharing a doctored video did not elicit the same kind of response from Twitter.
Similarly, more recently the toolkit fiasco brought to fore the inherent bias of Twitter. BJP leaders shared a toolkit, allegedly linked to the Congress party on social media websites. They claimed that the Congress party is trying to exploit the raging pandemic in the country to revive its dying political fortunes and attack the Modi government.
Propagandist website AltNews, which often acts as an extension of the Congress party, promptly published an article to give the party a clean chit and declare the toolkit to be fake. However, the article was replete with flimsy arguments and cringe-worthy justifications, only serving to solidify the suspicions of the toolkit being made and spread by the Congress party.
While there was no evidence or proof to declare that the toolkit was forged, Twitter labelled the tweets of BJP leaders with the toolkit as “manipulated media”. This triggered a showdown between the Indian Government and the social media tech giant over the latter’s lack of transparency in addressing grievances and murky practices of regulating content on its platform.
The reluctance of social media companies to cede their power to a sovereign government
In order to curb the rampant shenanigans of the social media websites, the Indian Government notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021. According to the new digital rules, social media intermediaries with more than 5 million users and providing messaging services will have to enable the identification of the first originator of problematic content that may harm the country’s interests and several other provisions described in the rules. They were to lose protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they failed to adhere to the code.
Besides Twitter, every other social media platform had complied with the new digital laws notified by the Indian Government. Whatsapp had initially filed a lawsuit against the Indian government. The opposition to the new digital rule was predictable, given that it has a provision of penalising social media platforms for its opaque practices and whimsical implementation of its policies. Fearing action against them, most of the social media organisations fell in line, except for Twitter which has asked for additional three months to comply with the new laws.
Even though social media websites claim that they will abide by the new digital rules, it is hard to imagine these organisations will obediently follow the law without giving a fight. These companies had grown accustomed to controlling and regulating thoughts on their platform. They labouring under the impression that they are omnipotent and invincible to be restrained by a sovereign government.
It is to this end that these social media organisations are pulling off antics that they are doing after the application of the new laws. They are testing waters so as to assess the Indian government’s tolerance towards their caprices and in the process retain some of their powers that the new law intends to curtail.