Over the last four-odd years, the halo around social media has dimmed, in India and the world. With greater recognition of platforms’ function of disseminating information — and issues like bias and the incendiary role propaganda can play — regulators are faced with complex questions: Should entities like Twitter and Facebook be treated merely as ideologically-agnostic tech platforms or as publishers with algorithmic editors? Unfortunately, rather than attempting to build a regulatory framework around a considered engagement with such questions, the Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology appears more concerned with optics, as its notice to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, after he reportedly did not heed its invitation the first time, indicates. To make matters worse for it, the Committee is unlikely to gain the upper hand even in the perception battle.
While parliamentary committees often call in experts, this kind of posturing is ill-judged. There is the obvious question of enforcement: Twitter is headquartered in San Francisco, and Dorsey can refuse to appear. More worrying, however, is the perception that Twitter and its senior leadership is being singled out for political reasons. Political leaders, across the ideological spectrum, have been losing “followers” over the last year as Twitter has been cleaning out fake accounts and bots to prevent the spread of fake news. Earlier this month, members of Youth for Social Media Democracy had protested against Twitter’s “anti-right wing attitude” and made a written submission to BJP leader and committee chairman Anurag Thakur. Twitter has refuted the allegations of bias, claiming its “trends” are determined by the velocity and volume of what users are discussing.
It may well be the case that the Committee wants to enforce some accountability from those who actually set policy at Twitter in its quest to “safeguard citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms”. But here, the parliamentary committee would do better to take a leaf out of the government’s book vis a vis WhatsApp, which was seen to be facilitating rumours that contributed to lynchings and mob violence. With consistent pressure leading to self-regulation, WhatsApp has taken steps, including curbs on bulk messages as well as a public education campaign to alert users to the dangers of rumour. That ongoing endeavour was made possible without making an issue of summoning Mark Zuckerberg.