Free Speech | Privacy | Big-tech Dictatorship
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra | 04 Jun, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
After the Republic Day violence in New Delhi earlier this year, the Union Government requested social media companies to remove content that appeared to incite violence. The request was not entertained. In response, the Government framed new social media guidelines. Platforms would have to set up grievance redress and compliance mechanisms and respect Indian law. Failure to comply would deprive a social media platform of the indemnity offered by the IT Act. At the May 26th deadline, only Twitter was still holding out. An expert writes on the nature of the conflict while IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad defends the Government’s position
THE LATEST ROUND OF CONFLICT BETWEEN THE Government and Twitter has generated significantly greater media interest, mostly because Delhi Police got involved in it. But the tensions between the two had been building up for years. They came to a head in January this year when, on Republic Day (January 26th), the farmers’ protest once again turned violent—but, this time, in the heart of the capital.
Government instructions to pull down certain Twitter handles, believed to be inciting the violence, were ignored. In response, the Government presented a set of new guidelines that were majorly revised over the previous intermediary guidelines. The Supreme Court, however, rejected the “guideline” nomenclature and asked the Government to push these as mandatory rules. The Government complied.
Having had three months to contest the new rules, Twitter did nothing. When the deadline of May 26th passed, none of the critical provisions of the new rules had been complied with. At the same time, things were coming to a head on a completely different level.
Twitter had arbitrarily, without providing reasons or citing sources, decided to label tweets posted by several members of the ruling party as “manipulated media”. Since the allegation of the media in question being “manipulated” was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, Twitter’s pre-judgment of an ongoing investigation interested the police. Twitter was asked to provide sources and inputs as to why it believed the documents in question were manipulated. Twitter’s local head gave evasive replies and, ultimately, a formal notice had to be served on the company.
In court, Twitter proceeded to say it would comply. But its public posturing appeared to be one of both defiance and mendacity. It portrayed its inaction on incitement to riot as “freedom of speech” but sidestepped the fact that it was refusing to cooperate with the authorities on a criminal investigation that had nothing to do with freedom of speech.
As usual, the Indian commentariat was sharply divided and lacked in nuance. Supporters of the Government wanted Twitter banned outright. Its detractors praised the company’s “courageous defiance”. Both these points of view miss the wood for the trees. Bans would have significant knockdown effects on freedom of speech. But not regulating or forcing foreign Big Tech to comply with local laws would be a far greater threat to both social cohesion and national sovereignty. To understand why this is so, we need to study the history of social media in relation to civil strife: why, unlike past threats, this is a far more potent danger while being more insidious; what are the technological innovations that have enabled this insidiousness; and, most importantly, why these companies are going in a certain ideological direction and what they gain by doing so.
That the advent of social media has led to the end of “centrist” politics is undeniable. However, what we are seeing is that, if extreme polarisation was the beginning of the so-called “social media revolution”, then civil war, social strife and rioting are its natural extensions, frequently encouraged and pushed by these same companies. The checks and balances human societies have evolved over millennia are now falling apart as technology evolves so fast that institutions are neither able to grasp its impact nor respond in a timely manner to regulate it. What we witness today is the mere beginning of a profound societal change, no different from the Bronze Age Collapse of the second millennium BC or the feudalisation of medieval society beginning in the fifth century BCE—complete with internecine violence and abuse of power by an emerging class of tech warlords who have grown more powerful than the state.
Sadly, while the role and capacity of the state and institutions have grown arithmetically since the advent of the industrial age, the capacity of unelectable, unaccountable modern-day Big-Tech feudal lords has grown geometrically based on the unprecedented growth of technology. The state trying to take on Big Tech today is as lopsided as Native American stone-age empires like the Aztecs or the Incas attempting to take on gunpowder empires like Spain. A failure to quickly rectify this imbalance between the elected constitutional authority and Big Tech could be cataclysmic.
In court, Twitter said it would comply. But its public posturing was one of defiance and mendacity. It portrayed its inaction on incitement to riot as ‘freedom of speech’ but sidestepped the fact that it was refusing to cooperate with the authorities on a criminal investigation that had nothing to do with freedom of speech
When the likes of Blackberry (tech) and Facebook (social media) first emerged, they had significant business and leisure value. It was only a matter of time before their original purpose was going to be subverted for more malignant purposes—not unlike gunpowder which was first used for imperial fireworks in China, or the wheel that was used for transportation. These platforms started being weaponised with the introduction of smartphones and the associated dramatic decline in prices beginning around 2007. By 2010, we had seen the first instance of how violence could ensue using this unprecedented fusion of technology. In December 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest harassment and humiliation at the hands of the police and civic authorities. As images of his self-immolation were captured using smartphones and disseminated across platforms like Twitter, public anger expanded to an uncontrollable and violent wave through the Middle East. The next domino to fall was Egypt where, again using Twitter, the mobilisation of masses accompanied by significant violence led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak by February 11th, 2011. This was followed on February 14th by largescale violence in Bahrain and the beginning of the Libyan civil war on the 15th of the same month.
Much of this was not simply “enabling” free speech. There was active encouragement of interactions regarding these “freedom movements” by Twitter as a means of growing its platform’s visibility (and hence its market valuation). As the US’ National Public Radio reported, Twitter was actually scheduled for a routine maintenance shutdown in the middle of the Tahrir Square protests but postponed it due to direct intervention by the US State Department for its “crucial role in communication for the democracy movement”.
In societies with higher internet penetration like Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, the effects of social media in conjunction with information-communication technologies (ICT) made a direct impact. In more tightly controlled states like Syria, or infrastructurally deficient states like Yemen, the effects, albeit indirect, were just as devastating. Mostly, this involved heavy promotion of alleged fronts for Al Qaeda, such as the White Helmets movement. Twitter’s role in raising awareness, whitewashing and mainstreaming jihadists can be glimpsed from the misinformation it has allowed to be spread on its platform. That does not include the unsavoury protagonists and their propagandists that the platform hosts.
If that wasn’t enough, Twitter then proceeded into what could be construed as exploitation of children. The most visible example of this is Bana al-Abed, who was “documenting” life in the Syrian civil war, urging foreign intervention, allegedly coached by handlers and/or relatives, showing footage that no child could have ever shot without significant mobility and infrastructural support. As of 2021, Bana is 11—yet, in violation of Twitter rules of not allowing children under 13, she was not only allowed to keep operating her account but also got blue-ticked “in the public interest”. The verification process till June 2016 could only be done based on direct personal contact with Twitter management. Consequently, every single account that was blue-ticked prior to that date, and after the public verification scheme was stopped in 2019, was by direct contact and evident political lobbying for what constituted “public interest”. What remained unstated was: Which public and whose interest?
India has had its own early run-ins with the ICT-social media (ICT-SM) complex as early as 2013 when WhatsApp led to a mass exodus of northeastern Indians from Bengaluru, leading to restrictions like limits on message forwarding. WhatsApp by this time had become the successor to the Blackberry Messenger. WhatsApp’s democratisation of internet service messaging was a boon to low disposable income countries like India where branded devices like the Blackberry were out of reach of most. But its general effects were exactly the same as in the London riots of 2011. This was only about to get worse with the advent of big data and data mining as well as the rise of wokeism in Anglophone countries.
IN ANY SOCIETY, anthropologically speaking, only between 1 and 7 per cent of the population—depending on its social development—is capable of being in leadership and decision-making positions. That has been the case through human history and the ratio improved only slightly during the industrial age which saw an unprecedented rise in public wealth. The problem was the so-called “information revolution”—spurred by the “services revolution” that led to a new cycle of wealth generation—turning a large part of the population quasi-white-collar in developed countries. In such a scenario, where societal wealth increases but wealth capture is also going to unprecedented extremes, social media proves to be a particularly toxic outlet for simmering social tensions. In countries where the state has an absolute monopoly on violence, as in most of Europe, these tensions are still manageable. However, in countries where the state does not enjoy such a monopoly, this becomes problematic.
The growth of social media and hence the market valuation and profits of these companies can only be achieved through polarisation—with the consequent strife and violence accepted as an unfortunate collateral in the quest for profit. Twitter, Facebook, etcetera both result in and drive social strife as a part of their business model
In India, which never entered the industrial phase, where state capacity is extremely low, and societal violence very high, where rumours can start riots, such technologies are effectively the spark that lights the gunpowder. In developed countries like the US, where private arms possession is quite high and significantly erodes the power differential between the state and the individual, the net result is almost the same—where rumours, tensions or an outrage can lead to major civil strife.
This phenomenon is actually well understood, and yet it is the exploitation of it—and aggravation of societal rage—that is key to the success of social media companies. The problem is that this is a phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with the tendency of social media to be monopolised by extremists. That’s also not new. The earliest Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) cells were created online on the Dark Web, which acted as a powerful tool to bring together and synergise exceptionally violent elements who were outcasts. It is also well known that the advent of social media has seen a complete collapse of the so-called “centre”. But it is also a very profitable model—the more social rifts are widened, the more people get polarised enough to want to come out and express themselves. The vast majority express their outrage through social media but a significant proportion also resorts to violence. Thus, the growth of social media and hence the market valuation and profits of these companies can only be achieved through polarisation—with the consequent strife and violence accepted as an unfortunate collateral in the quest for profit. It can, therefore, be argued that Twitter, Facebook and other ICT-SM companies both result in and drive social strife as a part of their business model. The issue is that their quest for “market growth” is never-ending and hence their management will lean towards and amplify the side that can both upset the status quo and create a state of perpetual siege where no new modus vivendi is reached.
India has had its own early run-ins with the ICT-social media complex in 2013 when Whatsapp led to a mass exodus of northeastern Indians from Bengaluru, leading to restrictions like limits on message forwarding. Whatsapp by this time had become the successor to the Blackberry messenger
This is particularly curious because, for the first time in history, we find a business model that perfectly synthesises the communist view of a perpetual people’s war with the capitalist dream of perpetual market expansion (and thus perpetual profit growth). This is where companies like Twitter and Google, which have advanced study centres for semantics, psychology and power structures, arguably better than any government, with access to as much data if not more, know exactly what they are doing. These are not clueless editors and their dutiful minions. Far from it, the oft-warned of pitfalls of isomorphic mimicry (where imposing the rules and norms of one society on another can be disastrous) suit them well. The clearest examples of this have been Twitter’s rapid blue-ticking or Google Search’s prominence given to certain people and stories.
When in early 2016, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University saw the outbreak of the “tukde tukde” protest, its leaders were rapidly blue-ticked. This was before the advent of public verification in June 2016. Evidently, the protestors and their sponsors were in regular touch with Twitter and the blue-ticking process was a deliberate move to amplify their message. It is important to note that at least one of the blue ticks awarded—to an activist known as Shehla Rashid Shora—was in deliberate violation of Twitter’s own rules. She had another account which had been previously put on permanent suspension and the account in question was essentially to bypass that ban. Anybody with even basic internet search skills can see that this was the case. And yet we are meant to believe that Twitter, with all its advanced algorithms, could not see or ascertain this violation of its own terms of service even though she had interacted extensively with Twitter management from her banned account. Another person blue-ticked within days was a gentleman by the name of Umar Khalid. Today he is in jail on charges of being complicit in the 2020 Delhi riots that claimed the lives of more than 50 people.
The role of social media platforms in exacerbating the 2020 and 2021 riots is too well known to be restated. Accounts that were inciting violence were allowed to operate with impunity and governmental requests to shut these down were largely ignored. Yet, once Donald Trump had lost the US presidential election and the January 6th violence at Capitol Hill commenced, based on no proof and no evident words of incitement, both the personal and official accounts of the then US president were shut down. It would be a mistake to attribute what happened in India to racism. Indeed, even in the US, Twitter, Facebook and practically every tech giant were actively promoting Black Lives Matter and even the Antifa rioters, amplifying the language of violence. Clearly, racism was not the issue because Big Tech seems to be an equal opportunity offender when it comes to both the US and India.
In societies with higher internet penetration like Tunisia and Egypt, the impact of social media was direct. In more tightly controlled states like Syria, the effects were just as devastating. Mostly, this involved promotion of alleged fronts for Al Qaeda like the White Helmets movement
THIS IS A GAME of profit. Big Tech’s shift to one side of the ideological divide is driven by the ability of that side to act as a disruptor of the status quo. The issue is that this takes us back in time—where the institutions of government and social stability, built through a process negotiated since the time civilisation began, are now in the process of renegotiation. It is not a problem in itself. The real problem is that the renegotiation is being done by modern-day versions of feudal lords against an elected government. One can accept that, not knowing the domino effect of the Arab Spring, they had a duty to support people’s right to self-determination. However, even here we see the standards unevenly applied. In the case of China, for example, the desire to kowtow to Beijing’s concerns is shown by all Big Tech companies, despite the fact that their platforms are mostly banned in China. In India, there is no such moral case to be made, India being the world’s largest democracy. This is why we witness the active promotion of anyone who tries to de-legitimise India’s democracy or its institutions, so as to be able to create a “moral” case to induce civil strife here.
The Indian state is too capacity-deficient and lacking in inputs and prognostication to be able to deal with such Big Tech giants. However, as things stand, within existing laws, there is enough material to make a criminal case against them for inciting strife and undermining elections and institutions. While Europe has the technological ability to study their algorithms, India has the technological depth to study the algorithms but not the humanities depth to understand what they mean, why they have been coded as they have, and what the social consequences or intentions of a particular line of coding are.
Till we get to that stage of understanding the grand canvas on which this plays out, smaller victories like preventing arbitrary application of rules and forcing compliance with local laws, including the need to cooperate with enforcement agencies, are necessary. We must not however think that short-term compliance is the end goal and let our guard down—the price of that would be far too high for every citizen of India.