This is the 1st part of a 3-part series on this subject which is a confluence of Big Tech, Consumer rights and social engineering. The recent controversy and standoff between Government of India (GoI) and Twitter is one of those increasingly frequent flare-ups that highlight the social media predicament that has been snowballing over the last few years. Though the current issue pertains to the new IT regulations brought in by BJP led government around appointment of nodal compliance officers, it does not pertain to one political party – in fact, the head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee that has summoned Twitter is Mr Shashi Tharoor who is a leader from the Indian National Congress (INC). Also, other political parties have as well had their share of conflicts with social media (SM) giants.
For instance, INC which is the principal opposition party in India alleged bias by Facebook: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/congress-alleges-whatsapp-indirectly-controlled-by-bjp-demands-jpc-probe/articleshow/77821018.cms
But this blog is not about the issues raised by political parties but about the fundamental issue of censorship and more importantly how it impacts commoners/public at large. This 3-part series covers the whole nine yards of this subject including
· Social media Censorship landscape & why it is dangerous – Covered below in this post
· Why Indian Government’s new regulation is both incorrect & evasive
· Way forward i.e., robust & sustainable solution
What is the root issue?
Censorship is the root of the issue. Twitter or Facebook censor content via multiple ways: tagging content as manipulated or misleading etc. deleting the content, suspending the user. While censorship of content from celebrities or political leaders garner attention, the issue applies to the commoners as well. There have been innumerable cases where commoners (i.e. not a celebrity or political leaders) have been censored. For instance, a user was as kicked out of Twitter a few months back after an argument with a senior police officer (from BJP ruled Karnataka Government) around using firecrackers for Diwali – Interestingly neither side used abusive language – it was a simple case of a bureaucrat using their power to get Twitter to suspend a user’s account in no time!! There have been thousands of such cases and more will continue.
Why is censorship in SM a critical subject?
Needless to explain, social media (specifically Facebook & Twitter) has transformed from just being a jolly indulgence to share birthday pictures or culinary triumphs to potent tools that shape opinion of people in a plethora of areas ranging from purchase decisions to elections. There are innumerable instances of social media stirring the conscience of the society and triggering positive actions. Likewise, there are numerous instances of social media triggering misplaced/incorrect outrage resulting in negative actions.
Within the SM spectrum Twitter and Facebook are the only platforms that shape opinion (political/cultural/religious/economic/social etc.) – hence a duopoly. Instagram, WhatsApp, LinkedIn are important social media applications too but they serve different purposes and do not cover the space covered by Twitter & Facebook. Hence a lethal combination of duopoly and censorship can destroy the social fabric of the society at large.
Why does Twitter/Facebook censor content?
There are innumerable allegations on biased censorship (unfair and inconsistent application of subjective policies) of content and/or users – These allegations are from commoners (like you & me), political parties (interesting often both/multiple opposing parties allege biased censorship against them), Cultural groups, NGOs, Activists etc. The general incomplete and unsatisfactory explanation offered by Twitter/Facebook is ‘Content violates our policy’. An analysis of the cause of censorship will point to following factors:
· Cultural/Social/Political disposition of the social media company – Major factor
· Ability of ruling dispensation (i.e., State & Central governments) in a given country to bully/coerce social media companies to delete content and/or suspend users – Minor factor. For instance, a twitter user (TrueIndology) who was popular in indology got suspended after an argument (though neither side used offensive language or content) with a top bureaucrat in Karnataka.
Hence the source of censorship is either
A. Twitter/Facebook themselves or
B. coercion/request from Governments.
Let us analyse A, the major factor before moving on to the analysis of B, the minor factor.
When Print/Electronic media have editorial rights, why social media cannot?
Some may wonder why Facebook & Twitter cannot have the same rights that a Print/Electronic Media (i.e., Media publications run by an Editor and Publisher covered by regulatory rights & duties) company has to publish/reject any content. Well, there are three major reasons to not treat Print/Electronic Media and social media alike.
1. Well, as mentioned above unlike Print/Electronic media, the content of social media is User Generated Content i.e. UGC. UGC is the heart & soul of social media. Social media applications such as Twitter or Instagram are merely technology platforms for sharing UGC. These companies monetize their platform by various means including advertisements.
2. Monopoly/Duopoly angle: If a Columnist/Journalist is unable to get their content published by a particular Print/Electronic media company, they always have plenty of alternative/competitor publications to go to. But the commoner social media user has NO choice to pick another SM platform as there is NONE!
3. Social media companies are NOT governed by the regulatory process/authority that governs Print/Electronic media. The spirit behind this, and right so, is that the content of social media is UGC.
Monopoly/Duopoly Angle – Is it possible to break this with Tech?
Some may wonder, ‘Why can’t Tech companies come up with their own social media platform, just like they came up with multiple versions of Browsers and eWallets etc.? Is it possible to stand up a micro/nano blogging social platform similar to Twitter/Facebook – heck yes!
BUT then there is a problem – standing up a platform is not going to change much because social media platforms are, well, ‘SOCIAL’ i.e., without the ‘network of connections’ a user has in a social media platform, it is worth almost nothing!!! This is the ‘entry barrier’ that has been preventing rich & proven technology companies from standing up competing platforms to Facebook & Twitter. More importantly, how will you cross-connect with users who are on different platforms? I can imagine/dream of a wrapper platform that enables cross-real-time-integration across multiple Twitter/Facebook-like platforms. Crazy imagination? Well, people say ‘go beyond obvious’. However, it is clear that no such solution is on the horizon – absolute duopoly in social media is a fact. Period.
Is no censorship not a recipe for chaos & danger?
Well, some get worried with the concept of no censorship and argue that freedom of expression (FoE) is not absolute. This camp also cites that without censorship, SM will be used for terrorism and that national interest will be compromised. Well, well, we will see about this in the third part of the series.
About the Author
Sundar Rengarajan is an ardent nationalist & analyst. He is an IT Leader, currently heading the Data Science practice at Intellect Design Arena Limited as a Vice President.