‘Dilutes your credibility’: Government’s notice to Twitter in toolkit case
In two letters sent to social media company Twitter on May 21 and May 25, the government cited the “percepts of natural justice” to persuade the firm to remove the “manipulated media tag” on the tweets by several senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders.
The letters are significant milestones in events of the past few months that have seen relationship between Twitter and the government deteriorate even as the company dragged its feet and missed a May 25 deadline for complying with new guidelines for IT intermediaries.
“It’s baffling that at this critical juncture, Twitter has chosen unilaterally to go ahead and designate certain tweets as ‘Manipulated’,” designated officer Pronab Mohanty, who heads an inter-ministerial committee that looks after take-down orders issued by the government, said in his letter to Twitter on May 21. “This dilutes the credibility of Twitter as a neutral and unbiased platform facilitating exchange of views by investigation by the law enforcement agency, also puts a question mark on the status of Twitter as an intermediary.“
On May 18, Twitter tagged a post by BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra and other senior BJP leaders, including Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe and party’s national social media in-charge Priti Gandhi, as “manipulated media”. The tweets alleged that the Congress had circulated a document (a toolkit) that outlined ways to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi and build a biased narrative over the Indian government’s handling of the second wave of Covid-19, and the Central Vista Project. The matter is also being investigated by the special cell of Delhi Police.
The letter accused Twitter of “overreach” for applying the tag. “In this light, such unilateral designation of the ‘toolkit’ as manipulated seeks to influence and overreach the fair investigation process, which is totally unwarranted,” Mohanty said in the letter. In its response dated May 22, Twitter told the government that it did not aim to influence any legal proceedings. “In doing so (tagging the content), we certainly did not intend to impact any inquiry that a governmental entity or a law enforcement agency in India might be conducting in connection with those Tweets,” it said. The government, however, said in its second letter on May 25 that the “views of Twitter will likely percolate into the fabric of the ongoing investigation and impact its outcome in a manner that will put its impartiality and objectivity in question”.
Twitter’s response also sought to explain the placing of the tag: “With respect to the Tweets that are the focus of your letter, we determined that those tweets violated our synthetic and manipulated media policies as described above. As a result, and consistent with those policies and our status as a private platform, we applied the appropriate label to those violative tweets.”
Twitter has, however in the past, asserted that it follows policies that are clearly outlined on its website when it comes to tagging any media as manipulated or fabricated. These internal rules have been invoked to label prominent persons like former US President Donald Trump in the past.
The exchange between the government and Twitter was made available to digital rights advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation in response to a right to information request. HT has seen and reviewed the exchange, which has not been reported before. Separately, because of its tardiness in complying with the new guidelines for social media intermediaries, Twitter runs the risk of losing the protection against liability that such companies enjoy for content posted on their platform, although experts said this is something the courts, not the IT ministry will have to decide.
The IT ministry pressed the issue, seeking the logic behind the tagging in its second letter on May 25. This letter said that the company should be transparent in applying the criteria “specified in its Platform Policies and afford a chance for users whose Tweets have been tagged as manipulated”. “Till this opportunity is given, the tagging should remain in abeyance.”
A government official familiar with the matter said that “Twitter cannot act as judge, jury and executioner,” the official said. “If they have arrived at the conclusion that the document is fake, then why are they reticent about sharing it with the government.”
This is pretty much what Mohanty wrote in the first letter. “The matter is still under investigation and the enforcement agencies are yet to arrive at any definite conclusion.” He added: “Such tagging by Twitter appears pre-judged, prejudiced and a deliberate attempt to colour the investigation by local law enforcement agency.”
Apar Gupta, Internet Freedom Foundation trustee said, “The present letter rather than addressing the problem of transparency increases the spread of manipulated media instead.”