Twitter before Parliament

The summoning of Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey by the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology to discuss the “safeguarding of citizens’ rights on the social media platform” has interesting ramifications. At one level, it is de facto acknowledgement of the importance of social media as a key channel for political messaging. At the same time, it is also an example of the elected representatives of a democratic nation emphasising the sovereignty of local laws while dealing with a multinational corporation (MNC). There is no doubt that social media is a force multiplier during contemporary political campaigns. Twitter is a remarkable platform for publicly showcasing political ideologies. It is used by all sorts of political formations for the dissemination of news, fake news, and opinions favouring their respective causes, making it an arena for deploying argument and counter-argument.

In that sense, social media platforms are open pulpits and there must indeed be a level playing field in terms of allowing the free expression of different points of view, subject to basic limits being placed on violent threats and hate speech. So, the right wing complaining about possible bias in the moderation of Twitter accounts has to be taken seriously. However, it may well also be true that Twitter is responding even-handedly, as it insists it is, in removing bots and abusive posters, and that the right wing simply has a numeric preponderance in terms of abusive posters.

The paradox arises in that social media platform such as Twitter are public spaces that happen to be privately-owned. They are curated by their owners who happen to be MNCs driven by the profit motive, rather than by altruism or any specific political ideology. Twitter, like Facebook and Google, operates in India in the hope of gaining traction and garnering revenues in one of the world's largest internet markets. And, like other multinationals, social media corporations must abide by local laws in every nation where they operate.

It is especially important for the Indian Parliament to assert its sovereignty in this instance since there is extreme sensitivity about this subject because of the country's colonial history. The British East India Company was, after all, a private company that entered the subcontinent looking for profits. There have been countless instances through the colonial period and even later when MNCs have manipulated political systems across the world in the hope of maximising profit. Indeed, MNCs have provoked coups and backed dictatorships in Africa and Latin America to safeguard their commercial interests. Given the direct impact of social media on politics, it is understandable that there is a great deal of nervousness about possible bias on the part of Twitter.

A third, and so far unstated, strand in this narrative is the enormous investment of resources by all sides, which makes it difficult to contemplate drastic action. The political establishment cannot afford to simply eschew social media and ban Twitter. Every political party has a social media wing with a substantial budget and every party relies on its social media strategy to energise the base and to deliver votes.

For its part, while Twitter doesn't disclose national numbers, its India base is estimated to be 30-50 million active users. This makes it a potentially huge market and, indeed, Twitter admits it hopes to generate significant revenue from political advertisements as the election campaign hots up. Of course, Facebook and Google are also hoping to pick up slices of the campaign pie.

This creates an uneasy situation of mutual dependency. Twitter would be loath to abandon India and the politicians would also be unhappy if it does leave. That is why it is all the more surprising that Twitter would delay participating in the Parliamentary Committee’s process. It is also quite surprising that none of its India-based officials is empowered to answer for it before the Parliamentary Committee. To that extent, it has been a public relations fiasco on Twitter’s part.

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