Twitter-Modi Govt Spat could catalyze the global debate on jurisdiction and regulation

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The clash between the Indian government and Twitter has once again exposed contradictions and double standards on both sides.

The Center threatened to take legal action against Twitter, accusing it of bias in its resistance to the removal of farmers’ protest accounts which New Delhi said could have caused a public order problem. Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad compared the events at Fort Rouge on January 26 to the violent assault on Capitol Hill by an armed mob a few weeks earlier.

At the time of the Capitol Hill attack, new US President Joe Biden said it was an insurgency against democracy. Twitter has sparked a global debate by hanging several handles, including that of incumbent President Donald Trump, for posting videos and comments sharing support for the mob engaged in the assault, and the justification for the conspiracy that underlies it. tends, and violating its guidelines for use by having virtually incited to actual acts. global violence.

In India, Twitter argued that it had blocked many accounts at the behest of the government, but refused to block several others that complied with the company’s free speech policies, despite having strongly criticized the way the Modi government handled the farmers’ protests.

Herein lies the crux of the problem that has strained the relationship between governments and social media platforms. As American companies, platforms like Twitter or Facebook have often hidden themselves under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution – the broad umbrella that guarantees absolute protection of speech, contrary to section 19 (2). India, which imposes reasonable restrictions on speech that may incite violence. or discriminate against individuals or groups on the basis of protected characteristics such as faith, caste or sex, or speech deemed contrary to the spirit of unity and integrity of the country.

In the first case, the discriminatory rhetoric is evident, while in the second, the restrictions have been repeatedly abused and abused by successive governments to silence critics.

Regulate Big Tech

This time is no exception. But in 2021, Twitter is not like the Indian media lying down. And we had to expect this shock from the courts. Now Ravi Shankar Prasad has gone so far as to tell parliament that he will be proposing amendments to Indian law to curb social media platforms. But under Biden’s presidency, it could also mean greater U.S. involvement in a larger dispute over the jurisdiction under which U.S. companies operate around the world.

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Photo: FRP

This is not the first time that BJP lawmakers have attempted to exert control over social media platforms, although in the Indian context, Twitter and Facebook have been slippery when it comes to curbing social media. Right-wing hate speech propagated by the infamous BJP IT cell. and his army of paid partisans and trolls. Ahead of the 2019 elections, BJP MP Anurag Thakur, as chair of the parliamentary panel on information technology, summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey respond to accusations of what the BJP government then claimed to be a “liberal” bias that drowns right-wing voices.

With around 350 million active users worldwide – a fraction of Facebook’s base – why is the Indian government repeatedly rocked by Twitter? The answer is not in numbers, but in politics. For its size, Twitter hits well above its weight. Unlike its contemporaries, Twitter’s significantly smaller user base appears to be much more engaged with the issues that dominate the news cycle in a public space. World leaders, presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and strongmen engage directly with users, and sometimes also with each other via tweets, bypassing the entire ecosystem of official communications, press conferences and statements in the mass media. They make the news and often set the agenda for nightly TV debates in India in less than 280 characters each day. Twitter’s ability to influence news programs and mobilize support or dissent (regardless of perspective), despite its size, looks formidable on a global scale.

Frankly, so far neither Twitter nor Facebook has developed standard policies, or even adequate infrastructure, to quickly identify content that can suddenly generate hatred and lead to individual or collective violence. The way social media platforms have rushed to ban Donald Trump after the Capitol Hill violence exposed their inconsistent behavior. French President Macron said the same social media platforms that helped “Trump be so effective” suddenly “cut the mic” after it was clear he had lost power. Macron’s statement struck at the heart of the platform’s double standards, governed not only by their sometimes malleable guidelines, but by commercial constraints, especially in countries that offer large markets and revenues.

The Indian government’s double standard is also on display, given its past collaborations with social media platforms when it suited them. Internal communications from senior Facebook officials unveiled in recent years have made it clear that the platform has regularly helped the BJP run ideologically motivated election campaigns bordering on hatred. Provocative content from BJP leaders in India has been allowed to circulate without censorship, due to commercial interests. Such actions and past precedents are conveniently dismissed or ignored by the Modi government and its ministers as they wage a daily battle of perceptions regarding social media biases.

Comparing the violence on Capitol Hill to the events at Fort Rouge on Republic Day is like comparing apples and oranges. In the United States, the FBI has identified right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism as the greatest threat to national security in 2021 and is gathering evidence of a concerted attempt to mobilize a crowd toward one goal: to overthrow an election and challenge the US constitution. . In the case of India, the protests focus on the impact that the new farm laws will have on the livelihoods of farmers, who have mostly demonstrated spontaneously and peacefully across the country since last November, and have failed. expressed no intention to illegally force a “regime change”. “

Yet the establishment’s attack on Twitter at a time when it attacks other national media heavily reinforces the impression that the government wants a firmer and tougher grip on the global narrative after the protracted protests by the farmers, who took a life of their own, especially after the Twitter appearances of celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. The pressure on the Indian government to reclaim its position was evident in the unprecedented move by the Foreign Ministry official reaction to celebrities, who confirmed that the government is well aware that wars on Twitter must be won on Twitter. It even provided its own “toolbox” of hashtags like #IndiaAgainstPropaganda to do so.

Officially, the Indian government’s main objection to Twitter was about the virality with which provocative hashtags and automated bots suggesting “genocide against farmers” spread across the platform. While this concern is legitimate and the government may have been justified in raising it with Twitter, what really worried Prime Minister Modi was the real global support for the protesting farmers, from celebrities and the public alike. legislators from all over the Western world. A lawsuit against Twitter, proposed by Prasad, will undoubtedly add to the crippling effect created in the wider media space. “Will Twitter officials in India go to jail?” Is a question many wondered when the government announced it would file a complaint against the platform in India.

It is unclear how the current face-to-face between the Modi government and Twitter will resolve the clash of the courts. After all, India is not China and cannot afford to ban social platforms, especially those the Prime Minister himself uses with great efficiency and eagerness.

Globally, governments are seeking much stricter regulation of social media platforms. Recent communications from the European Union to US President Biden seeking common rules to harness the power of Big Techs are proof that under his administration these conversations will progress. The political class wants to regulate Big Tech but is also open to concluding agreements with them to maintain some control over the citizens. This interaction will become more complex in the future as the influence of Big Tech grows in leaps and bounds.

In this context, a serious legal dispute between the Indian government and Twitter over the issue of free speech may well become the catalyst around which such regulations can be debated. The outcome of this feud will likely set a benchmark for how conflicting legal jurisdictions between democracies can coexist with the right of citizens to criticize, oppose, and oppose without necessarily provoking hatred or violence. This exercise will be complex and delicate, and could determine the democratic references of India under this regime.

In agreement with the India Cable, where a version of this article first appeared.

Maya Mirchandani is Assistant Professor, Media Studies, Ashoka University and Principal Investigator, Observer Research Foundation. MK Venu is the founding editor of Thread.

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