‘No evidence of foreign interference in India polls yet’: Twitter vice-president Colin Crowell
Twitter vice-president Colin Crowell spoke about the meeting with the parliamentary committee, responded to allegations of a perceived political bias.
By his own admission, Colin Crowell, Twitter’s vice president for global public policy and philanthropy, is a technology optimist. “My optimism about the use of technology has to be tempered at times by the reality that not everybody who comes to an open public platform comes with noble intentions. So you must have a strategy to deal with the flip side in a way that is smart and effective,” he added. In an interview with Vidhi Choudhary in New Delhi, Crowell spoke about the meeting with the parliamentary committee, responded to allegations of a perceived political bias and the recent attack against journalist Barkha Dutt. Edited Excerpts:
Q: How was meeting with the Parliamentary Committee?
It was a respectful enquiry around issues that would be natural for a panel like that to enquire about, particularly when you take into account the looming election that is going to happen here. It’s similar to the enquiries we get from other countries on the cusp of major national elections. I tried to convey to the committee the array of things that we are doing to get ready for the Indian elections. Lok Sabha 2019 is critically important to us because India is so important. Given the history that we have had with elections on social media its natural that they would enquire about what we are doing and so I explained that we have a cross functional team that we have spun up internally to work on site integrity issues to make sure that we’re alive to any concerns with coordinated manipulation or interference that the Indian government might have.
We are proactively working with political parties and major candidates to verify accounts; we’re working also with civil society. We’re proactively and collaboratively working with the Election Commission (EC) as well to make sure that we have open channels of communication and effective mechanisms to receive reports from them on issues of interest and connect upon them in timely fashions.
Q: Please tell us about the elections group that Twitter formed last week to lead electoral integrity work in India.
The team is globally distributed and certainly we will have a presence in India to have a liason like function with the Election Commission. We also have people here in India to facilitate verification of accounts. Issues of site integrity like looking for evidence of bot networks, online manipulation and foreign interference will be done at a global level.
Q:How do you respond to allegations of a perceived political bias on Twitter? Has Twitter tried to measure such conversations and control them?
We are so unbiased that we don’t even categorise users on the basis of their political beliefs. We don’t break down conversations that way because we don’t monitor it. Any assertion that Twitter factors in political beliefs or viewpoints in developing or enforcing our rules is false. We believe in impartiality. Our mission is to serve the public conversation which needs to have all voices and perspectives present in order for it to be vibrant and valuable to every other Twitter user.
I will echo the words of my CEO that transparency is going to be very important here. To go a little deeper, one of the things that we have done over the last 18 months is we have made 70 different changes in safety policy, process and product features which means that conduct on Twitter that may have been permissible 18 months ago may not be permissible today. For example, we have made it easier to report impersonation, we’ve made it easier to navigate your own Twitter experience with additional tools and features. A year and a half ago, if you were the victim of abuse on the platform we relied on the victim to report this abuse, now bystanders can report the abuse. People witnessing the abuse can also file a report and Twitter will take action accordingly.
Q: Earlier this month, Barkha Dutt, one of India’s popular TV journalists, publicly criticised Twitter for allegedly failing to act against the gendered harassment she faced. Please comment.
A: We welcome and respect the voices of those who use our service to hold power to account and to draw attention to societal issues, including the rights of women. However, posting private information on Twitter is a violation of the Twitter rules. We do not consider public information that is already widely available in the public domain as private. For example, if information was previously posted or displayed elsewhere on the Internet prior to being put on Twitter (e.g., someone lists their personal phone number on their public blog), it may not be a violation of this policy. We will continue to enforce our rules against any accounts and content that are brought our attention. We cannot take action on abuse that occurs on other services but as ever, we encourage account holders to report, block, and mute accounts that are harming their experience of the public conversation on Twitter.
Q: Do you believe political parties in India are abusing platforms like Twitter and how would you tackle this?
A: We don’t focus as much on who is tweeting as to the conduct of tweeting. If people are abusing and manipulating the service trying to game the platform in some way, trying to use automation in public spaces like conversations to get messages in front of people who may not be following them, that’s conduct that we will pick up and notice. The origination of that conduct is immaterial to us.
Q: What are the top insights you’ve gained from elections around the world that might help India?
A: One of the things we learnt in both Mexico and Brazil is how important it is to work with national election commissions because they are trusted sources of election related information. As a result, we want to make sure that we are sharing what is present on the platform and have open lines of communication with those national trusted sources of election related content. We’re certainly taking that lesson here to India as well through the work we are doing with the Election Commission.
The other thing that we have learnt over time is the importance of verifying accounts of the major party candidates and the political parties because that is a hedge against impersonation.
The other thing that we have learnt from the 2016 US election where we did have retrospectively an investigation that yielded evidence of Russian interference and we are certainly bringing those insights to India as well to make sure our site integrity team that has identified these networks in the past elsewhere is also alive to any consideration that might happen here. We have not seen such evidence as yet but that is the kind of thing we have to do for elections.
Q: Facebook recently appointed an election integrity officer in India. Does Twitter have similar plans?
A: We will have ongoing conversations with the Election Commission about how to create the right open lines of communication. Whether that is a deputised person with a title or some other alternative, we’ll figure that out. Sometimes picking up a phone and tracking somebody down may not be as efficient as using an online portal where you can reach a team that is manned 24X7.
Q: In your experience what is more effective?
A: Online is always more effective because it’s more timely, its efficient. You can also have people in a market that you can call but that is often not the best primary means to reach people.
Q: Will Twitter appoint a nodal officer to help with real time complaint redressal as mandated by the EC?
A: We will certainly have a conversation with the EC to establish the process and the personnel needed to make sure that that happens. This is a collaborative conversation and this won’t be an issue for us.
Q: Tell us about the infrastructure related investments that Twitter is making in India.
A: Our investments on the infrastructure bit is related to the site integrity team because a lot of issues that people are concerned about are with respect to fake news. Fake news manifests itself on different platforms in different ways. The vulnerability that we identified for Twitter was when unearned distribution of those messages occur and that primarily happens on Twitter through automation and bots. So, the infrastructure investment that we have been making particularly since the 2016 US elections has been to double down on that machine learning technology and proprietary anti-spam techniques to go after networks of manipulation. So we get malicious automation early in the process and prevent it from gaming the platform in ways that can propagate those types of messages.