Media and free speech are public goods and the right to privacy is the very foundation upon which free speech and democracies are built. Algorithms will never be free of bias, no more than research. If you don’t understand something as simple as that then no tool on Earth - not Twitter – can help you. I have been following the Twitter conversations on Twitter in India for the past few days and I am pleased to note that stupid people are equally distributed across levels of education, religious beliefs, income brackets and political ideologies. They may be found under stones, in the media, behind cupboards, in politics, among commentators and gurus, especially the last category. They also have one thing in common - few of them can spell. Twitter is testimony to that.
Twitter, the micro-blogging site, has been asked to appear before a committee of the Indian Parliament to explain what is deemed as bias in verifying handles (blue tick), bucking or bloating trends, hiving off followers, skewing algorithms and having a pronounced tilt against the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in power. The bone of contention is that the company is being selective to the extent of rousing tensions and fanning social and communal disharmony. Twitter India has said the following. “We have a specialized, global team that enforces Twitter Rules. Twitter India employees do not make enforcement decisions. This is by design to ensure fairness and impartiality.” I find this statement remarkably weak and I’ll come to that in a minute.
At the time of writing, it is learnt that a member of the powerless – therefore no responsibility - Twitter India will depose before the Indian parliamentary committee. India must set a deadline to engage constructively with top management, not pen-pushing staff. Companies and democracies grow in an atmosphere of informed trust and it is critical to engage with the right league when there’s a question mark over trust. Policy development is always work in progress that requires sound sense.
That’s not how it’s playing out in India where one can see self-loath to self-promotion in all its shared ugliness. Here’s my favourite. Self-proclaimed champions of free speech boast about blocking people on Twitter. Then post tweets about blocking people. Then tweet all day about lack of free speech on Twitter free speech on Twitter and curse Twitter for bias.
Or this. Beg people to tweet their stories privately. When you don’t because the story is good, bad, you don’t have the time to read or simply forgot, expect to be insulted publicly on Twitter with echo chambers being tagged. Then there’s the worst category – gurus who wouldn’t survive a day in any newsroom, old, new, future media - but who hold forth on Twitter on everything from copy to grammar, news flow to Twitter decks, news breaks to piece to camera (PTCs).
Twitter is an equal opportunity exposer. The sepoys in India’s so-called left wing are tweeting in glee that the Indian government has got bloody nose even before a nationwide conversation has begun. The sepoys in India’s so-called right wing are having a mutiny amongst themselves. Both are going for each other’s throats on Twitter instead of combining efforts to demand accountability. I have called out Twitter’s head for his rather ridiculous poster on Brahmin patriarchy as I have requested Twitter to do something with handles that call people Nazis without the slightest understanding of how much hurt that causes people.
A leaf for New Delhi from Brussels, the seat of the European Union (EU) and its Framework Decision on Combatting Racism and Xenophobia is instructive.
Last week a press release said: “The EU, its Member States, social media companies and other platforms, all share a collective responsibility to promote and facilitate freedom of expression in the online world. At the same time, all these actors have a responsibility to ensure that the Internet does not become a free haven for violence and hatred.”
The European Commission and four major IT companies (Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube) came up with a document in 2016 to prevent proliferation of racism and xenophobia online. The fourth evaluation of this work shows the initiative is delivering good results. “IT companies are now assessing 89% of flagged content within 24 hours and 72% of the content deemed to be illegal hate speech is removed, compared to 40% and 28% respectively when the Code was first launched in 2016. However, companies need to improve their feedback to users,” says the EU. Policy work is always work in progress.
Now to why I think Twitter is wrong in not empowering its people in India to enforce global rules. Far from speaking to “fairness and impartiality” it leads to suspicion for the following reasons. And that is directly linked how Twitter sees itself – as an IT company or an information company or both? Issues it must recognise in the market it seeks growth include:
* Indians do not think in English. Most of them speak it badly because they speak Indian languages well. That does not make them inferior or superior.
* Twitter does not have the bandwidth in India to understand the influence of people who are thought leaders in Indian languages. Pretending to do so would be foolish and hanging around Delhi and Mumbai as major setting for inputs would be irresponsible.
* There is no right wing in India like in the United States. In fact, Indians can vote differently in local, state and national elections – ingredients that make for a true democracy. This kind of boxed thinking – are you a Democrat or a Republican – is not how India works.
* There is no left wing in India – there are left overs.
As to whether platforms like Facebook, Google or Twitter are media companies or just platforms, my view is clear – they are companies that wear several hats and the most disturbing one is their obstinacy in accepting that their power to cause damage is far greater than their stated desire to connect peoples and encourage debate. Far from 24/7 news networks, I believe these IT companies have damaged newsrooms, especially business models, as they have no rules of global engagement and compliance. Even a high school debate has rules of engagement.
To those in India who want to “throw” Twitter out and Tweet about it all day, here’s a question – how many Indian companies do you think there are in the country that are corrupt, receive political patronage, break rules, deceive citizens and lie? I am trying to think when was the last time anyone of them was asked to depose before a committee of the Indian parliament.
Twitter has entered the language. When a word enters the language, it can become very powerful. Twitter has given a voice to millions of people. Let’s gets on with it how the cacophonous tool can be made better. Engage or be ridiculed forever. On Twitter.