It finally happened. Last week, after US President Donald Trump’s supporters stormed Capitol Hill, major social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram had blocked Trump’s accounts, citing that the risks posed by Trump’s continued use of the companies’ services were too great at a time like this. While the microblogging platform had banned Trump permanently, both Facebook and FB-owned Instagram have kept him off their servers until the end of his term.
Trump’s kin has gone on record to say that the company’s move is a violation of the First Amendment of the US constitution that guarantees citizens the freedom of expression and peaceful protest, a cry that has been echoed in some quarters in India as well. A section of politicians also latched on to the bandwagon of Twitter bashing – highlighting the muscle flexed by tech companies. BJP MP Tejasvi Surya happened to be one of them who cautioned netizens against the threat posed to democracy by big tech companies, while urging the Centre to review guidelines for intermediaries, and how they should not be allowed to interfere in the content of social media. Some took a stand on Twitter’s opportunism, allowing Trump a free reign for as long as half a decade, and then pulling the rug from under him, when he seemingly was relinquishing office. The raging debate offers netizens and tech firms, a chance to reflect on the dissemination of news and views via technology and the business model employed to fuel that dissemination.
On the one hand, we have social media giants, who have thrown open the floodgates of communication, in ways considered impossible a decade ago. And nowhere is the phrase level-playing platform more applicable, than in case of Twitter. In under 280 characters, a school student in a remote corner of Odisha recently tagged the state transport managing director to convey how the absence of a 7 am bus was leading him to turn up late in the class every day. The MD went on to reassure him that the bus would be scheduled for that time so that he never went late to class. Consider this – the student didn’t have to stand in a queue at a govt office with his grievance in triplicate. It was paperless, digital, and on-the-go. A shining example of Digital India, if you may.
That was the sunny side of the story. On the dark side, Twitter and other social media platforms have often been pulled up for ignoring the spread of misinformation, being passive towards those inciting unrest, and turning a blind eye to hate speech. A recent example of this involves the stepping down of a top official of Facebook, who had opposed taking down incendiary content from the BJP. So when Trump actually got dropped from Facebook indefinitely, it seemed like the company had finally mustered the courage to do the right thing – setting aside concerns of business losses arising from a boycott by company chiefs loyal to Trump.
We have handed over the keys to some of our most strongly-felt opinions, and institutions to private enterprises, who are tasked with offering a platform to share perspectives globally. These platforms are available to unscrupulous individuals too who can use them to leverage false narratives or provoke violence. Taking the Chinese way out – which is the creation of a police state that snoops in on every citizen every hour, is not the solution. The East Germans had tried it once before, prior to reunification with its homegrown Stasi – which at its time, was one of the most effective and repressive intelligence agencies globally, and it had disastrous results. Going forth, delineations separating fact from fiction will grow thinner. Social media firms would gain by bringing their A-game to the contentious field of content moderation. Standing up to the most powerful (supposedly) man on the planet and making an example of him, could mark the start of social media’s transition into a new age of accountability and responsibility.