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Importance of social media in democratising freedom of speech, tussle with the Govt of India and why Twitter must comply

Failure to act accordingly would amount to the defiance of the very principle of freedom of speech and expression, which is the core of social media, as well as the concept of sovereignty, which is integral to their operations; thereby paving way for self-contradictions and self-contestations.

Today, when the whole world is confronted with an unprecedented crisis due to the COVID19 pandemic, another crisis has emerged over the ‘penetrative’ role of social media platforms in India. These platforms have been playing a predominant role in the expression of views and dissent of people across borders.

The ‘penetrative’ role has become such an integral part of daily life that everyone has become highly dependent on these platforms for news around the world. There is no denying the fact that the structure of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and others are designed for the dissemination of information. Implied, any individual regardless of their status and position in the society, including political leaders can use these platforms to convey their own agendas without being censored or filtered. Considering the kind of enormous outreach of social media, platforms such as Twitter have started to act arbitrarily to become a state within a state

Twitter decided to defy an order by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, India to block or remove 1,178 accounts from the social media website. These accounts were on the radar of security forces as Pakistani-run accounts trying to incite people in the midst of the ongoing Farmers Protest. Twitter was given this list of suspicious account of February 4th. 

However, Twitter has refused to take any action pertaining to the list of suspicious accounts. Twitter then released a statement in an attempt to offer an explanation for its disregard for Indian security.

Consequently, the Indian government urged Twitter to create mechanisms that will enable the people of India to resolve their issues on the platform in a timely and transparent manner and through fair processes. Under the reformed guidelines of the Information Technology (IT) Act of February this year, all significant social media intermediaries with more than 50 lakhs users were to designate executives for addressing grievances by May 2021.

After brazening it out, Twitter then started adding the ‘manipulated media’ tag to tweets by BJP officials, that exposed the ‘Congress toolkit’ to create unrest in the country. The addition of the tag was based almost no evidence whatsoever.

On 19 May 2021, Congress shot off an email to Twitter, asking the social media behemoth to permanently suspend Twitter accounts of BJP leaders JP Nadda, Sambit Patra, Smriti Irani, BL Santosh and many other functionaries for sharing a toolkit, which they claimed was prepared by the Congress party to sully the reputation of the Modi government amidst the raging COVID-19 outbreak. 

Within a day, Twitter promptly obliged to Congress party’s request and marked the tweet carrying the photo of the Congress toolkit as ‘manipulated media’. On 19 May 2021, Twitter marked Sambit Patra’s tweet on the Congress toolkit as ‘manipulated media’, a label it grants to tweets that it deems are misleading in nature. Not only did Twitter show an unmatched alacrity to label the tweet as ‘manipulated media’, but it also did so in absence of credible evidence that conclusively proves that the toolkit document was indeed fabricated. 

The final rift came with the Twitter removing the ‘blue tick’ verification of Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, and RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, recently. Moreover, few dormant accounts of several other RSS leaders like Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, Suresh Soni and Arun Kumar have been de-notified. However, with the uproar that ensued, the blue verified badge of the accounts of Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, and RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, was restored. This controversy has evoked many questions which were amplified by the ambivalent position of Twitter. Were these positions driven by a change in IT Policy as Twitter claims or it is an expression of resistance against the ruling government in India? 

Today, social media is not just an instrument of activism but a manifestation of the very concept of freedom of speech and expression. Amidst the changing role of social media, the recent conduct of Twitter can be seen as jeopardising the concept of freedom per se which is its very edifice.

As Senior BJP Leader Dr Vinay Sahasrabuddhe rightly puts it, “Social media intermediaries must understand that open access, truly democratic nature and non-partisan character made them stand apart. Understandably, their refusal to protect these unique features creates strong suspicion about their intent. All in all, they must appreciate that like any agency—government or otherwise—they too can’t have their own liberty protected while denying transparency and accountability to their stakeholders.”In contrast, the actions of social media platforms, particularly Twitter, can be seen as creating an illusion of freedom of speech and an attempt to maintain its dominance in sovereign territory.  

The theory of sovereignty upholds the supremacy of the constitution and the laws provided by it. As a transnational actor significantly profiting through its operations with a large user base in India, Twitter seems to be not adhering to the law of the land. Twitter’s action of arbitrarily targeting Twitter accounts of a particular political party and ideology and suspending the ‘bluetick’ verification of the constitutional authority of a country exudes a complete disregard of the constitutional sovereignty of the land.

The concept of sovereignty also underpins the right of resistance, which is also a duty. Both as a right and a duty, the power of resistance may act as a defence against unlimited powers and related processes, and at the same time act as a pressure on transnational regimes. The government has the right to ensure immediate compliance by transnational actors with the law of the land. Exercising the power vested by the constitution, the government of India has insistently urged Twitter to comply with the guidelines enshrined under Section 79 of the Information Technology (IT) Act, which has been disregarded by Twitter so far. 

It is yet to be seen if twitter would comply with the guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act with the stipulated, and probably the final, timeframe. Whatever be the decision, it is important to understand that any transnational actor, regardless of the laws of the home country, i.e. where it is headquartered, has to abide by the laws of the land, the host country i.e. where it is operating. Any failure to act accordingly would amount to the defiance of the very principle of freedom of speech and expression, which is the core of social media, as well as the concept of sovereignty, which is integral to their operations; thereby paving way for self-contradictions and self-contestations.

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Avni Sablok
Senior Research Fellow at Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC), New Delhi

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