Shashidhar Nanjundaiah | Hashtag power: Twitter, govt in fight for survival

Deccan Chronicle.  | Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

Opinion, Columnists

The social media has two broad roles — the organisational and the dialogic, and it is the former that is spooking nervous governments

By threatening Twitter officials with jail and publicly contemplating the application of media laws to the social media, the government is putting on public display how spooked, rather than concerned, it is. (Photo: AFP)

An Editors Guild of India webinar on February 12 on reporting from the Naxalite badlands featured song videos, pornography and abusive language. Now, why would an organised group of “unknown persons” like to cyber-bomb a seminar? Perhaps the theme was inconvenient? As the guild pointed out later, the seminar would talk about the excesses of the government and the struggles of the tribals — or Adivasis — at the hands of the left-wing extremists. Open webinars are vulnerable to mischief anyway, and this writer has himself faced tough, disruptive questions during them. But such is the nature of free speech. Where does free speech end? Would we consider the disruption of the guild’s webinar also free speech, or would we find it unreasonable enough to be restricted? Should the guild be held responsible for those who misused the platform?

Gatherings, virtual or physical, promote mobilisation of thought, and that can be problematic. That is why the recent spat between the Centre and Twitter has rich meanings for a researcher.

The Twitter-government conflict is a fight for survival. In Twitter’s constitutional framework, economic survival is founded on a business model of big numbers and a systematic process of ensuring openness and diversity of voices. Let us remember, to be fair, that Twitter’s understanding of freedom of speech is rather American. The courts there allow restrictions posed only from a clear and explicit call to violence or breach of national security.

A landmark judgment in the 2014 Elonis vs US case stated that an explicit threat includes one where “reasonable people hearing it will perceive it to be a threat”. No amendments were made, however, in what free speech meant on the social media. Of course, national security is a reasonable restriction in American law too. But the courts relentlessly uphold the free speech rights of an individual. Most courts also rule in favour of protecting the voices of min-ority groups, unless there is an explicit threat, but Twitter usually watch groups with historical problems more carefully.

Twitter’s country-specific censorship has disabled accounts that were clearly neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic. The site does not usually block accounts that are critical of regimes, whether or not a country is authoritarian. Governments then tend to take action against individuals who may use disagreeable or inconvenient language against a regime about its majority religion. Instances are replete from Turkey, Bahrain, Thailand, and several other countries — not exactly stellar examples of individual freedom-granters.

The social media has two broad roles — the organisational and the dialogic, and it is the former that is spooking nervous governments. By threatening Twitter officials with jail and publicly contemplating the application of media laws to the social media, the government is putting on public display how spooked, rather than concerned, it is. For the Indian government, in particular, irrespective of party, there are several historical precedents — most glaringly so over the last six years. To cry conspiracy on groups of like-minded people who use a convenient technological tool — the hashtag — to galvanise support and make claims is extremely thin-skinned.

People and political parties — many on Twitter, such is the delicious irony of the social media — have raised doubts about whether the Delhi police wittingly or unwittingly facilitated the Republic Day drama. Should we therefore assume that our government liberally allowed the virtual mobilisation to brew on Twitter, and then failed to protect a public monument where the real action was?

Certainly, history has shown us that mobilisation topples governments even through rhetorical intent. Organisational power can often translate into transactional power — and from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi, it poses a human challenge to professed development goals. The social media is just the latest galvanising force that transcends geography.

But can the social media enable a coup in India? But is it possible to argue that it can? Similarly, can a group of people hoist a private flag atop a public building as the police watch? But can the Cent-re argue that the breach was a security problem? That’s what matters. And the public display of anger is a warning to the rest of us not to rub the government the wrong way. Consider the potent words of BJP leader Anil Vij in Disha Ravi’s context: “Those who even think in anti-national terms must be eradicated”.

Let’s flip a question: Would the flag be hoisted atop Red Fort on Republic Day if the social media had not existed? This sounds like a rhetorical question. Like during the Arab Spring, “hashtag mobilisation” can indeed take on unimaginable, real proportions. But which political leader has not used it to campaign and discredit, proclaim and decry, often using clever but false equivalence?

But false narratives cannot be confused with fake news. It should worry us that instead of seeking to protect its citizens’ privacy (it took the Supreme Court to state recently that privacy is paramount), or protect conventional media businesses like Australia, Spain and several other countries are now doing, the Indian government and its agencies are seeking to use the social media to identify inconvenient people to fit into its narratives that can fuel pseudo-nationalistic frenzy. Disha Ravi’s arrest is only the latest example. As a former SC judge noted on a prominent news channel, it seems the new tendency is to arrest in a hurry, ask questions later — no wonder a judge has questioned the police on its “conjectures”.

Any government should be responsible for creating an ecosystem that enables its citizens to feel involved but secure, responsible but free. Knee-jerk reactions from the State and highly publicised arrests of people who are merely practising their rights tend to inhibit citizens from speaking up. As a medium, the social media does not represent — it merely amplifies.

Meanwhile, the homegrown Twitter, Koo (I understand the onomatopoeic word is a call that people in coastal Karnataka use to catch someone’s attention) has deftly built a base of political support and is a perfect platform for mobilisation. And as expected, the BJP government has taken the lead. Sure, Koo is no less dialogic, but fair dialogue depends on whether the government indeed ends up painting social media in the same brush as the editorial media — and if Koo can adopt editorial interventions that are fair and just to all.