Shashidhar Nanjundaiah | Twitter vs Govt: freedom of expression, interrupted
Twitter, the microblogging giant, is no longer the network without a global chatter hub that its model suggests. After failing to appoint a full-time compliance officer in India, its country general manager will be criminally liable for inflammatory or hate speech on the platform. Concretely, this means that the social media platform will now be responsible for what the Twitterati say. Failure to abide by any of the Indian government rules has cost Twitter dearly, which has lost the very legal coverage that would have allowed it to be treated as a middleman. The intervention itself could be opposed to the status of intermediary.
Social media platforms have claimed to be public carriers or non-intervention intermediaries. Section 79 of the Information Technology Act provides a legal shield as long as Twitter remains an intermediary – when it does not initiate transmission of the message, select the recipient, and modify the message. The loss of the Section 79 âsafe harborâ – perhaps the world’s first such experience – means that the essence of the social media business model has collapsed. As with any house of cards, this crash was just waiting to happen. Arguably, a company’s vulnerability is at its height when a nation’s political values ââare being rewritten.
The job of a newspaper editor is to act as a “gatekeeper”, assigning various pages, positions, lengths and levels of prominence to reports. Unlike a legacy editor, a social media platform doesn’t change the content of what we write. It is much more democratic that way than a newspaper. The role of social media intermediaries in the current framework is not that simple, but it is questionable whether they are completely passive. Whether it’s the way algorithms are written, level of engagement, or other protocols, there is a message prioritization process that basically means that one message can achieve more visibility than another. .
From a syllogistic point of view, giving importance to one content over others should be seen as a form of editorial intervention.
This form of editorialization, while indirect and driven primarily by those who wrote the programs, means that the business model of social media that is fueled to us – that social media is truly a free market for ideas – needs to be turned over. in question. Users may assume that due to the sheer volumes, their posts have the same chances of visibility and impact as those of their neighbors. Have social media platforms been transparent with us about how it all actually works, and if it is just an organic process like Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection?
But the concern for the billions of social media users is much greater. Regulation comes at the cost of more interventions, not less. Liberal policies in a democracy must implicitly assume a factor that is truly debatable: “fairness”. If a government becomes entangled with private actors and creates a shield of opacity against ordinary people, it is unfair to the spirit of democracy. On a related note, is it fair to hold a business accountable for what its users are doing? After all, users are not company employees. Would the police charge the bicycle manufacturer for a cyclist who chooses to illegally ride on the wrong side of the road?
The difference is that in a social media model, the business and the user are linked in a trapezoid-type relationship, linked to each other for a critical time of use. So, could the answer be an openly declared pre-facto intervention? The problem with liability for content created by someone else is that any damage can only be mitigated once it’s done. We may not have reached the stage of being able to prevent an impending post in time (although efforts in this direction may be underway). But if that was the case and Twitter intervened before a tweet was made public, it would still lose its status as an intermediary. Perhaps as a first step in a precautionary method, Twitter could filter out bots and fake profiles. Reporting posts for questionable content has always been a great idea, but can it be pre-facto and more transparent? If intervention is needed, then should Twitter’s editorial work be limited to accepting or rejecting posts?
It would be naive to assume that everything will happen according to the spirit of the law. Twitter will now be an easier target for those who find a post inconvenient, and when users find that their legal liability is indirect at best, one wonders if bad content will tend to sink even deeper. In the incident in Ghaziabad following the loss of Twitter compensation, Uttar Pradesh police named the company and some of its users in an initial briefing report, accusing them of circulating a fake video. This means the police have taken on a wider field of guilt, holding both the platform and its users accountable.
Twitter could therefore need a new operating model. Twitter’s experience in India could also reinforce the growing idea that after decades of enjoying the status of the least regulated and least impeded media technology, social media growth may stall. A report predicted these trends almost three years ago: A digital news report from the University of Oxford-Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reported in 2018 that for the first time since the phenomenon began, among users in 37 countries across continents (not counting India, though), reliance on social media for news consumption had diminished.
It is indeed âastonishingâ, as the Minister of Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad underlined, that an entity which presents itself as the standard-bearer of freedom of expression defies the law. However, this observation should apply to governments as well as to private companies. Governments that promote nationalist narratives, and societies that are hegemonized in those narratives, prefer images, walls, and controls. The new rule is a standard bearer of this philosophy. Now we can expect less annoying chatter from the Twitterati. Freedom of speech is illusory anyway, and if the social media giants denied the existence of any form of control, whether political or not, that would be a bit rich. These platforms have been our public dhobi ghats for dirty laundry. But it seems that’s not how we prefer it.