Parliamentary panel summoning Twitter CEO is timely and necessary to ensure fairness of platform, not bullying

There’s a storm brewing on Twitter. In India, the micro-blogging network’s fastest growing market, the parliamentary panel is unhappy that Twitter “ignored” its summons and sent local officials to meet the parliamentary Department-Related Standing Committee (DRSC) on Information Technology to discuss the issue of “safeguarding citizens’ rights on social/online news media platforms,” “data privacy” and “interference” in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Behind the stated reason for the summons lay another layer of concern that right-wing voices in India were being systematically suppressed and the platform was cherry picking on individuals for suspension, blocking, shadow-banning or penalising them based on their ideological bent.

 Parliamentary panel summoning Twitter CEO is timely and necessary to ensure fairness of platform, not bullying

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Reuters

This is an old charge, not limited to Indian shores, but it has gained traction in recent times as the election dates have drawn near, possibly because of the fact that Twitter and other social media platforms wield outsize influence over consumers in a democracy and manipulation of these platforms may have grave repercussions.

There have been recent submissions and protests by conservative voices. This month, a group that calls itself Youth for Social Media Democracy, organised a protest before Twitter’s New Delhi office.

Concurrently, New Delhi-based lawyer Ishkaran Singh Bhandari submitted a representation before the home ministry on “Discriminatory And Unfair Practises By Twitter, Inc. Which Are A National Security Threat” where he accused Twitter of “downranking” and shadow-banning right-wing users of the platform.

Twitter was asked to appear before the panel on 11 February, but on the platform refusing to send CEO Jack Dorsey and/or senior global officials due to “short notice”, the panel has now revised the date till 25 February and warned the platform that if the global CEO fails to comply, the panel will be forced to take a serious note because Twitter would be seen breaching parliamentary privilege. 

In this respect, it is pertinent to point out that though the DRSC is headed by BJP MP Anurag Thakur, it is a bipartisan panel represented by 21 members from across the political field where decisions are arrived at by voting. This panel, as Prashant Reddy points out in Economic Times, has produced “detailed bipartisan reports” in the past and since its hearings are held behind closed-doors, political point scoring by publicly harassing Twitter officials won’t be a workable strategy.

To argue, therefore, that the government was flexing its muscle before elections by bullying Twitter and trying to appease its core base, is specious. On the other hand, Twitter’s stance as elucidated in a media statement: “Given the short notice of the hearing, we informed the committee that it would not be possible for senior officials from Twitter to travel from the United States to appear on Monday. Our CEO, Jack Dorsey, and other senior Twitter executives visited India in recent weeks because it is an important market for Twitter and we value the growing interest in Twitter in India” smacked of arrogance and callous disregard for the institution called Indian Parliament, not any political party.

This has been a problem with US-based social media giants. Their frequent run-offs with lawmakers even in the US have been widely reported. From Facebook, to Google and Twitter, getting high-flying CEOs to appear before lawmakers is a herculean task and they agree to eventually testify only after other options have been exhausted.

For instance, as The Indian Express pointed out in a report, Dorsey was called to testify before congressional committee members on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election in late 2017 but the company’s acting general counsel turned up instead. Facebook and Google behaved similarly, prompting a US senator to remark: “I’m disappointed that you’re here, and not your CEOs. It’s fine to send general counsel, but I think if you could take a message back from this committee, if we go through this exercise again, we would appreciate seeing the top people who are actually making the decisions.”

Summoning the head of a social media platform to get more clarity on their algorithm, policy or content-moderation processes is a legitimate practice covered by law. It is, in fact, a necessary practice because if the platforms suffer from an inherent bias or even “mistakes or ‘false positive’ decisions” as a recent Twitter statement claimed, it needs clarification. And Twitter, which claims to run the “most open conversational tool in history” shouldn’t have any problems in appearing for a dialogue.

In terms of policies, as Reddy succinctly noted in his piece for Economic Times, “Parliament should intervene to force social media platforms to be more transparent in their content moderation practices, given how important these platforms are to political speech in India.”  To be sure, the charge against Twitter that it suffers from a left-leaning bias is not exaggerated or untrue. Dorsey has admitted that Twitter needs to “constantly show that we are not adding our own bias, which I fully admit is … is more left-leaning,” during a CNN interview.

In another interview to tech magazine Recode, Dorsey clarified that “we have a lot of conservative-leaning folks in the company as well, and to be honest, they don’t feel safe to express their opinions at the company.”

This in itself is a startling admission, and adds to charges of selective admonition of users. A report in USA Today, for instance, pointed out the case of 20-year-old Hispanic student Ariana Rowlands from California, who had tweeted: “So proud of my Hispanic Heritage and so proud to support @realDonaldTrump for President!!” in September under a hashtag celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

Soon after, she began receiving personal attacks and death threats, according to the report. Rowlands apparently reported the abuse “but she says Twitter did nothing. And, she says, it wasn't the first time Twitter ignored concerns for her safety that she and her Twitter followers expressed and even reported to police.” Shadow-banning of prominent Republicans in the US made global news and Twitter was forced to admit later that it was a “side effect of its attempts to improve the quality of discourse on the platform.”

Given the seriousness of these charges and the unresolved issues, not to speak of legitimate concerns around interference during elections and data privacy of users, Dorsey should have no qualms in appearing before the panel for an honest conversation. It will lead hopefully to more clarity, transparency and consequently a better platforms that users may trust.

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2019 15:33:58 IST