Why social media platforms in India are gagging ‘dissenting voices’ without much ado.
When Salil Tripathi retired for the night on Dec 5, he had no clue how a video uploaded on Twitter (in that video, he was reciting a poem that reportedly mentioned the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the 2002 Gujarat riots) would snowball into a Twitter suspension and stoke a massive outrage over the incident.
“It (the video) was the one where I read out the poem about my mother… The next morning, I was suspended. I had no intimation from anyone,” he says.
His stellar credentials as a veteran writer and a human rights activist did not make any difference, either. Despite decades of writing experience with the focus on India and being chairman of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, a 99-year-old writers’ body, his Twitter account with 72.3K followers was abruptly suspended. It fell victim to the brute force of ‘reporting’, organised by a profile called Deshi Army (as it purportedly claimed) that prides itself on its “swift, fearless, deadly” motto of cleansing the social media platform to make it “pleasant for nationalists”.
The promised land of unfettered freedom of expression that social media was going to be in the wake of the Arab Spring is nowhere in sight today. As internet giants like Facebook, Google-owned YouTube and Twitter drill down on their business models and seek to rake in huge profits from increasing screen times, their commitment to upholding democratic ideals and moderating ‘hate’ feeds are now widely questioned.
In August this year, a story published in The Wall Street Journal titled Facebook’s Hate-Speech Rules Collide With Indian Politics, alleged that the company’s then public policy head for India, Ankhi Das, had refused to take down incendiary posts from politicians of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to seek favours from the Indian government. The social media giant replied that Das did not oversee content moderation and she quit following a furore.
Facebook alone has not fallen short of maintaining neutrality while dealing with all hues of hate speech. Both Twitter and YouTube have failed to live up to expectations. There are many instances when the accounts of prominent government critics have been taken down citing ‘objectionable content’. But the same level of scrutiny has not been applied across the board. If Twitter is replete with scores of fake accounts who post vitriolic tweets threatening women, YouTube is home to the likes of Hindustani Bhau who spew hate and abuse prefaced with a ‘Jai Hind’.
“These (social media platforms) are all private corporations with a profit motive… They do take care of their revenue generators’ interest, be it a political party or a major advertiser. So, when their platforms are gamed by IT cells, they seem to respond faster and more harshly against some people but ignore others,” says Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court. His Twitter account was blocked after he retweeted a rhetorical poem titled Usko Phaansi Do and its English translation Hang Him.
Why They Are Tone Deaf To The Indian Context
Of course, moderation of hate speech and misinformation has been a challenging task for these internet giants even in their home territory of the US. But as the chorus for regulating social media peaked following the Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed the medium’s outsized role and irresponsibility, they took some major steps to address the issues before the 2020 US Presidential election.
Twitter declared it would not entertain political ads globally and started tagging doctored content designed to misinform the electorate. Facebook said it would limit political ads, remove the content that seeks to discourage voting by creating fear of contracting Covid-19 and label the efforts to delegitimise the election. YouTube’s response was more tepid as it reiterated before the election that it would enforce its community guidelines and also remove the videos alleging voter fraud a month after the results are declared.
But then one might ask why these platforms did not adopt the same strategy during India’s general election in 2019. After all, the size of the electorate in the world’s largest democracy is nearly three times compared to their home country.
“Tech companies like to think they are global, but in reality, they are heavily biased towards their home markets when it comes to resource allocation, staffing and platform policies. Look at the way the US Presidential election was handled and how elections are treated elsewhere, whereas the US election is not more precious than other polls in other parts of the world. It is incumbent upon the tech companies to provide appropriate resources for India or any other country where they serve users,” said Raheel Khursheed, a former top executive who worked for Twitter and Snapchat’s India and South Asia, and South East Asia offices.
According to him, American social media companies tend to be massively understaffed in other countries. As a result, local employees, who have not done content moderation before, have to step up every now and then and plug the gap when the need arises. Hence, there are discrepancies.
One reason that complicates content moderation further in India is the diversity of vernacular languages and the consequent cultural nuances in speech. “It is not possible for them to replicate that (American) model in other societies easily. If they try to ‘understand’ that society and fine-tune it, it will change their product,” said Tripathi.
That the first gatekeeper of content on these platforms is artificial intelligence (AI) does not help, either. Yes, there is human intervention too as these platforms claim, but there is no public audit of how well automation has fared even in the anglophone countries.
“While more automation is core to addressing content moderation, we have strong and dedicated teams of specialists who provide 24/7 global coverage in multiple languages. And we are building more capacity to address increasingly complex issues,” a Twitter spokesperson told Inc42.
A YouTube spokesperson also replied in a similar vein. “Given the highly contextual nature of content and nuances in language, there are no rules which can be universally applied without accounting for these factors. Each removal is subject to a rigorous process of review, with due consideration to context and language, before the takedown.”
But the reality is: Just like other platforms, YouTube, too, relies disproportionately on automation and reporting by users as prima facie evidence of any violation of its community guidelines for posting content. According to a YouTube blog, the first source of detection was automation in more than 60% of the videos removed in the July-September quarter, and 28% was taken down after users flagged the same.
Facebook seems to have an elaborate system in place for content moderation. “Our content reviewers typically review more than two million pieces of content every day, and in the last few years, we have tripled the number of people working on safety and security to over 35,000. Of this, about 15,000 people are content reviewers. We know there is more to do, and we will keep improving our technology and policies to ensure Facebook remains a place where people can connect, find support and access accurate information,” the company said in an emailed response.
When Free Speech Becomes A Casualty
Pradeep Poonia, a critic of the coding edtech startup WhiteHat Jr, was at the receiving end as YouTube took down multiple videos and channels after the company’s employees allegedly reported those. “The videos magically reappeared the moment Forbes published an article questioning the basis of the takedowns,” said Poonia.
Another well-documented case involves angel investor Dr Aniruddha Malpani who also claims to be a victim of an edtech company as his LinkedIn account was permanently suspended in July this year.
Such instances of gagging the critics of particular businesses who are prominent advertisers on social media platforms have led to another, and more pertinent, question. Will these social media platforms remain neutral when they face a conflict of interest?
The fact that Facebook, Twitter and Google are increasingly becoming prime digital real estate for advertisers is a business reality that can no longer be ignored. While Facebook India earned INR 6,068 Cr from advertising in FY2019-20, Google India’s earnings from advertising stood at INR 1,510 Cr (27% of its total revenue of INR 5,593 Cr in India).
Understandably, digital advertising spends, mostly attributable to social media platforms, has seen a significant rise from INR 6,228 Cr in FY2016 to INR 13,683 Cr in FY2019, riding on annual double-digit growth.
Treading The Legal Boundaries
As social media platforms are private companies with every right to pursue their business interests, their inflated role in the public domain may have more implications than are readily recognised. Hegde filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in December 2019 after his account was suspended, trying to establish that censoring of any content should be justiciable in accordance with the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression, provided by Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.
More hearings to resolve this case could not happen due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. But it had ruffled feathers across the social media industry and highlighted a critical perspective that is gaining ground.
Another significant factor that has impacted how social media platforms operate is the concept of a safe harbour. In simple terms, it means that Indian laws, at present, provide immunity to them for the content posted by users. The platforms are not responsible for the posting of hate speech, abusive or violent content.
Social media platforms are intermediaries which facilitate communication among users, and their liabilities, ascertained by laws, are generally referred to as ‘intermediary liability’ the world over.
The Indian government drafted a new set of intermediary liability guidelines in December 2018 (these have not been notified yet). But they primarily deal with the power of the government to monitor and demand content takedown.
“The draft intermediary liability guidelines are entirely from the point of view of the State’s ability to gag inconvenient speech. The government has not fulfilled its duty to preserve a user’s right to free speech on these platforms through the guidelines,” said Hegde.
Can India safeguard users’ interest on social media that promises to be free and fair, but often trips up and gives in to inflamed or abusive tirade? Only time will tell.
The Dilemma Of Fintech Regulations
As the internet economy matures, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are two revenue models which can help a technology business scale sustainably in the long run – namely, advertising and lending. Tech giants are already minting money via the first route and trying to break into the latter through payments services.
But there are too many regulatory hurdles in the payments business. The likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon found themselves in a spot this week as a PIL was filed against them in the Delhi High Court, seeking a detailed legal framework for regulating operations of these companies which have now entered the financial services sector.
The Dilemma Of Atmanirbhar (Self-Reliant) Startups
America Inc is not only all-pervasive on the social media front; the rise of the Silicon Valley as the linchpin of the global technology ecosystem also meant that it wields disproportionate power over tech startups elsewhere.
India has not been immune to the whims and fancies of Silicon Valley as US investors often want Indian startups to flip their company headquarters to the US or a few other countries. One prominent case in point is the US-based accelerator Y Combinator that requires its 2019 and 2020 India cohorts to ‘flip’ their India-registered entity into a wholly-owned subsidiary of a new US parent company.
Noted investor and homegrown jobs portal Naukri.com founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani kicked up a storm on Twitter, saying that Y Combinator’s demand of flipping India-incorporated startups to the US is an “institutionalised transfer of wealth”.
“If 500 of our best startups have shifted overseas and 2% of those become as successful as Naukri and even half of that elite pool becomes as successful as Infosys, we are talking about a future loss of more than INR 17 Lakh Cr in market cap at current prices,” he later told Inc42.
While the technology behemoths of Silicon Valley engage in a lot of virtue signalling about helping developing countries, promoting diversity, democratising technology and connecting the world through their platforms, their actions betray the words spoken by billionaire founders and CEOs. Isn’t it time to ask if their hearts are in the right place?
Until next time,
Last Updated: 10:22 AM
Salil Tripathi’s designation at PEN International was corrected.