Government must look Beyond Narrow Politics

T K Arun

Delhi Police scores are high for its contingent’s march at the Republic Day parade. Things are less than stellar on other fronts. When it comes to defending the fair name of the government at the Centre, its recent efforts have been as masterly as holding up an umbrella against a cyclone coming at you at 175 km an hour. It remains lackadaisical towards Fakes on Social Media.

It arrested people for pasting posters criticizing Narendra Modi for his handling of COVID-19. Now, it is seen to be cracking down on Twitter for labeling a post by a BJP leader as manipulated media and Fakes. Do the burly men who visited the empty offices of Twitter due to COVID -19 realize that in trying to save a BJP spokesperson’s face, they are dragging his leader’s, and, indeed, the nation’s, name in the mud, to make a global splash over censorship in India? 

Dissing Dissent 

Delhi Police claims it only sought to get Twitter officials’ help to get to the bottom of why a post claiming the Congress has prepared a toolkit for discrediting the Prime Minister over his handling of the pandemic has been labeled as manipulated media. Twitter’s India CEO says all such labeling is done out of the US, and that he only handles sales. 

Twitter should explain why it deemed the tweet in question to be manipulated media. The generic explanation is, of course, available on Twitter’s website. If the content of a tweet is deceptively altered or fabricated, or if it has been tweeted in a deceptive fashion, it could be labeled as manipulated media, and if, additionally, the content is likely to cause harm, it is likely to be labeled as manipulative media. 

While marking a politically significant tweet as manipulated media, Twitter has the responsibility to explain how specifically it fit that label. But the police have been clamping down on dissent elsewhere, too. In Manipur, critics of COVID-19 management have been charged under the National Security Act. The Uttar Pradesh administration has arrested people for complaining of oxygen shortage. Maharashtra policemen feel obliged to act on a BJP leader’s complaint that a tweet seeking justice for a man killed by a communal mob in Haryana hurts religious sentiments. 

A journalist from Kerala, arrested by UP Police en route to Hathras to report on the rape and murder of a Dalit girl and charged with conspiracy to defame the UP government, suffered COVID-19 in jail. Intellectuals and activists arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad to mark the anniversary in 2018 of the Bhima Koregaon battle in which a Dalit unit of the British East India Company’s army defeated the Peshwa’s forces languish in jail three years later, without prosecution and on the strength of an alleged conspiracy, for which no shred of evidence has been made public. 

A similar, alleged conspiracy has been invoked to jail a number of student activists and others in connection with the Delhi riots of 2020. The Police are in no hurry to prosecute and the courts have indulged it by keeping the arrested in jail, instead of releasing them on bail. 

The crackdown in universities, JNU, Jamia, and Aligarh, gave a foretaste of the official attitude towards dissent, leaving no room for a surprise at the internet blackout in Jammu and Kashmir. It should come as no surprise that Delhi Police’s neighborly call at Twitter’s office should be seen as a continuation of this trend, which has seen India go down in global indices of democracy and freedom of expression. 

Duty to Flag Fakes 

Should Twitter refrain from flagging tweets it has reason to consider manipulated and manipulative? We are in an era of deep fakes, in which images of real people can be made to act and speak in lifelike imitation of the original. If the social media platforms that carry such images can identify them as fake, they have the choice of either refusing to carry them or carrying them with appropriate labels. It would be irresponsible to demand that social media refrain from exercising this judgment call. 

However, if social media platforms do take a call on the validity of the content they carry, that weakens their case to be considered dumb platforms that merely carry user-generated content for which they bear no responsibility. 

In any case, social media platforms have at the core of their business model the sorting of their content and feeding different streams to different users based on their interests, to create sticky audiences. 

This strengthens the case for regulating social media as mainstream media, with regard to their responsibility and accountability on matters such as libel, accuracy, and fairness. If social media are asked to behave within the parameters that guide mainstream media, that would relieve them of the burden of defining their own boundaries. 

Online media have two kinds of challenges that print media do not encounter. One has to do with the speed and reach of what they carry, calling for corresponding speed in the correction of mistakes, if any. The other relates to technologies of manipulation, of voice and image, that could get past the media platforms’ guard rails. The compliance and grievance redressal mechanism prescribed by the intermediary guidelines rules will help in meeting these challenges. 

The problem of censorship is separate. The media oversight mechanism of loyal babus is an affront to democracy, blurring India’s distinction from China in the matter of free speech.

First Published in The Economic Times View: Government must help flag fakes, not put a stop to Twitter on May 25, 2021

Read another piece on COVID-19 Vaccine by T K Arun titled Increasing Vaccine Production: India an Answer to Global Woes in IMPRI Insights

Read another piece on COVID-19 Vaccine by T K Arun titled Bold Vaccination Policy Needed in IMPRI Insights

About the Author

T K Arun, Consulting Editor, The Economic Times, New Delhi.