HT Editorial: On Twitter, a self-goal
On Monday night, two teams of the special cell of Delhi Police “visited” the offices of Twitter India in Delhi and Gurugram. The objective was to ostensibly give a notice to the company, and seek an explanation for why it tagged a tweet by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Sambit Patra, as “manipulated media”. The tweet in question concerns a “toolkit”, outlining how the government can be cornered for its management of the pandemic. The BJP has claimed that this is a Congress party document, which shows how the Opposition is cynically leveraging a human tragedy. The Congress has rejected the allegation, acknowledged that parts of it were genuine while alleging the more controversial parts were fake, and filed a police complaint for forgery. AltNews, a fact-checking site, based on a study of the metadata, has corroborated the Congress’s version, and there has been no evidence forthcoming on the entire document’s authenticity. Twitter then tagged the tweet as “manipulated” (which means the media in question was altered).
There is the larger question on whether Twitter’s action of taking such calls affects its status as an intermediary. It does, after all, look like an editorial call that a media company may make.
Stung by Twitter’s decision, the government, which wrote to the company, seems to have decided it was time to have the police pay the company offices a “visit”, initially presented as a “raid”. Twitter’s offices have been closed for a year, and there are multiple channels of communication that already exist between the government and Twitter. As a result, Delhi Police’s action has reinforced the impression of democratic backsliding in India, where contesting the narrative of the ruling party can invite retribution. It has done little to establish the authenticity of the “toolkit”. It has blurred the line between the party’s objectives and the State’s conduct. It has distorted the debate on regulation of big tech, which requires a careful balance between freedom and accountability. It has put the ministry of external affairs in a spot, for the job of defending India’s actions against a big tech firm headquartered in the US will end up falling on external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, currently on a visit to that country.
There is a simple lesson in all of this for authorities concerned — stay focused on the goal of beating the pandemic, fight political wars without involving State agencies, use existing channels to communicate with tech firms without resorting to intimidation, and remember each action will be carefully weighed on the scale of democratic conduct.
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