Both Twitter and WhatsApp are headed for a tough time addressing increasing regulatory scrutiny on their platforms, especially in light of the upcoming elections
- WhatsApp is under scrutiny by the government for misuse of its platform by users in India to incite people for violence and spread pornography.
- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been asked to appear before a parliamentary panel to address allegations of a right-wing bias.
- While the government is adamant on its demand for official oversight of WhatsApp messages, the company says that this is just not feasible.
- Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, will have a tough time explaining the allegation of bias in handling complaints, similar to the problem he faced in the US.
India is arguably the most critical destination for leading social media companies. Facebook counts India as its largest market with over 300 million users. Customers on its messaging app WhatsApp have crossed 200 million.
While India ranks 7th with respect to Twitter users (7.65 million), it is a high-potential market. Twitter is fast growing as an important hub for public discourse in India, be it politics, business, entertainment, lifestyle or sports.
However, social media companies are facing a severe regulatory backlash in India over the past few months, which mirrors the issues they are facing across the world. The controversies surrounding WhatsApp and Twitter over the past few days are only the latest in this tirade.
YOU HAVE THE WRONG MESSAGE
Facebook’s messenger service WhatsApp is under fire, as people have been found using the service to incite people for violence and spread pornography. The government is asking Facebook to permit oversight of discussions on the platform, even at the cost of allowing official access to encrypted messages.
Gopalakrishnan S, a senior official at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), expressed frustration at the slow progress by Facebook in this regard, “For six months, we’ve been telling them to bring more accountability to their platform but what have they done? So pedophiles can go about on WhatsApp fully secure that they won’t get caught. It is absolutely evil.”
He argued that WhatsApp does tackle child abuse with a firm hand, and bans 250,000 accounts every month for sharing vile content. But since it adopts end-to-end encryption at present, there is no way to know what users are exchanging.
The government, on the other hand, firmly believes that WhatsApp should be able to fulfill its demand, just like telecom companies share call records. MeitY is framing intermediary guidelines that will make online platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok responsible for content shared by users if it’s “blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”
DOES TWITTER HAVE A POLITICAL OPINION?
Twitter, on the other hand, is facing a lot of flak because CEO Jack Dorsey did not appear before a parliamentary panel on information technology on February 11, as was directed by the government. Led by BJP MP Anurag Thakur, the panel had set the agenda of the meeting as ‘Safeguarding Citizens Rights On Social Media Platforms‘. It wanted an explanation from Twitter on the methodology and technology it was using to address complaints of bias and fake news.
BJP party members have strongly accused Twitter of having an anti-Modi and anti-right wing bias. The allegations in India from BJP and its supporters started coming in on January 26, when SquintNeon, a famous right-wing parody account was blocked by Twitter as it was impersonating The Quint. Several users including Ashish Chauhan, general secretary of ABVP, asked Twitter to remove the ban.
Delhi BJP spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga has alleged that the company is pretty proactive in shutting down pro-BJP and right wing handles and slow on the uptake with other handles. Another activist-advocate Ishkaran Singh Bhandari has claimed that Twitter is opposed to accounts supporting ‘Indic ideas or the current government’.
On February 12, Twitter users faced a peculiar problem – retweets and likes were automatically disappearing from its platform. While Twitter acknowledged that it was a technical glitch which they were trying to resolve, some users again linked it to the ‘anti-right wing allegations against Twitter and hashtags like #TwitterMischief and #Twitterbug had a field day. Users pointing it out included Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju and BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma.
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) February 12, 2019
So here’s what @twitter can do in a day’s work to one RW tweet. Reduce 1200+ RTs to 500. Then again bring-down 1000+ RTs to 700+.
No wonder @jack has been summoned by Parliamentary Committee. This is fraud and calls for serious investigation!
— Nupur Sharma (@NupurSharmaBJP) February 12, 2019
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP SEA
Both companies face an uphill challenge addressing these concerns. If the draft rules by MeitY are finalized, platforms like WhatsApp will be compelled to play ball on the government’s demands. While WhatsApp has been asked to censor content and reveal more details of private conversations in other countries, it has never agreed to break its encryption, and maintains that it would be unable to do so.
Along with other tech giants, Facebook has stringently opposed the government’s proposals as an invasion of an individual’s right to free speech and privacy. With the matter reaching a stalemate, WhatsApp is trying to convince the government that it is using AI tools to detect abusive behaviour and ban accounts. With the spectre of fake news rearing its head during elections, WhatsApp will be testing those tools to the hilt.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had actually appeared before US Congress members in September 2018. He had been similarly accused of bias against conservatives by representatives of the Republican party. Dorsey pleaded innocence at that time, but when the accusations continued to flow in, he confessed in an interview, that a majority of Twitter staff was left leaning.
The Parliamentary Committee would like to ascertain the process and guidelines with which Twitter addresses complaints and blocks accounts, which may seem arbitrary to users at times. Therefore, Twitter will have to adequately address government (read BJP) concerns regarding its processes. It will be a tough thing to do, as something as basic as the definition of an ‘abuse’ is quite subjective and open to diverse interpretations.