‘Manipulated Media’: Twitter Refuses to Blink as Govt Fires Blanks
Since 2018, the Centre and the BJP have taken on Twitter at regular intervals over a host of issues.
Yet another Twitter vs Centre showdown. Yet another embarrassment for the central government, which appears to have overplayed its hand.
Twitter's refusal to remove the ‘manipulated media’ label from tweets by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Sambit Patra and other party members – such as Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, BJP national social media in-charge Priti Gandhi, Andhra Pradesh co-incharge Sunil Deodhar, BJP media panelist Charu Pragya and BJP Delhi general secretary Kuljeet Singh Chahal – despite an alleged order from the central government, marks yet another chapter in the rich history of Centre vs Twitter battle. This duelling round, observers would argue, has gone to Twitter.
Having struggled to sustain its ‘toolkit’ allegation against Congress, the government opened a new front of attack by taking on Twitter.
The micro-blogging platform, however, has stood its ground, sensing the Centre to be firing blanks in this latest showdown.
Since 2018, the Centre and the BJP have taken on Twitter at regular intervals over a host of issues. These staring contests have become frequent and intensified in 2021, with Twitter rarely having to retreat from its stance.
This piece analyses and explains how the Centre appears to have fired blanks, why Twitter has won the latest round, the manner in which the government's relation with the platform has soured, and what lies ahead in this dead rubber battle.
Latest Round Goes to Twitter
There are two primary reasons why the Centre appears to have misfired, handing Twitter the victory in the latest round.
First, the Centre's latest demand that Twitter removes the 'manipulated media' label is not anchored in any law.
Experts have pointed out that the current direction to Twitter to remove the ‘manipulated media’ label lacks a statutory basis.
On 22 May, the Internet Freedom Foundation wrote to the Union Electronics & IT Ministry, pointing out, “Nothing in the IT Act, 2000 or the rules made thereunder empowers MEITY to request Twitter to take down such tags. The law also does not prohibit Twitter from affixing such tags.”
This raises serious doubts about the enforceability of the Centre's demand that the labels be removed.
Second, the Centre's case is further weakened as the Union Electronics & IT Ministry has not officially published the true copies of the letter it has purportedly sent to Twitter.
Neither has the Ministry issued an official press release on the same. Our information on this has come through ANI and PTI, quoting Ministry sources.
On 21 May, ANI reported that MeitY had written “a strong communication to the global team of Twitter” and “asked Twitter to remove the 'Manipulated Media' tags affixed prejudicially to certain tweets in recent days.”
The purported letter to Twitter, however, is not in the public domain.
The unavailability of the actual letter is made incongruous by the availability of a second letter that the ministry has written to all major social media companies, asking them to remove "all the content" that uses the term 'Indian variant' of coronavirus. In the absence of the actual letter, one is unable to ascertain under which specific provisions of the IT Act or other laws the Centre seeks to enforce such an objection.
At the time of writing, on 23 May, Twitter continues to uphold its labeling of the tweets by Patra, Vaidya, and others as “manipulated media.”
How Well Does Centre's Objection Hold?
A question that arises is – was Twitter out of line in labelling the tweets? The Centre's primary argument, that a law enforcement agency is investigating the authenticity of the toolkit, does not prevent Twitter from labelling tweets as per its terms of service, several experts have pointed out.
Experts have highlighted that Twitter is within its rights to tag tweets in accordance with its established content moderation policies and terms of service.
Medianama founder Nikhil Pahwa wrote in a tweet thread, “Twitter can tag whatever it wants, whoever it wants, whenever it wants. It's their platform. Govt can only request, not order for the tag to be removed...”
IFF, in its letter to MeitY, writes, “The actions of Twitter aligns with Twitter’s ‘Synthetic and Manipulated Media Policy.’ This policy permits Twitter to affix a tag if it finds that the content has been substantially edited or if the content is shared deceptively.”
Moreover, in the event that such a label actually affects any ongoing investigation, it is the law enforcement agency and not the Ministry that should take steps.
Govt vs Twitter in 2021: Sharply Escalating Tensions & Twitter's Pushback
February 2021 saw tensions between the Centre and Twitter escalate sharply as the platform pushed back strongly against the government’s orders to take down over 1,400 accounts and tweets related to the farmers' protests.
On 1 February, 257 accounts were ‘withheld because of a legal demand’ from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and remained unavailable in India for most of the day. They were subsequently restored by Twitter, which pushed back against the blocking in discussions with the government at a meeting.
Following this, it was served with a non-compliance notice by the Union Electronics & IT Ministry.
Incensed by the restoration of these accounts, on 3 February, in a sternly-worded letter, the Union Electronics and IT Ministry informed Twitter that as an 'intermediary', the platform was bound to comply with the government's takedown orders.
It also warned the social media platform of legal consequences for not complying. On 4 February, MeitY had shared a flagged list of 1,178 ‘Pak-based’ as well as ‘Khalistani’ accounts for allegedly threatening public order amid the national outrage against farm bills.
However, Twitter had pushed back against a wholesale takedown and said it was examining the orders.
Twitter, in its blog on 10 February, concluded by stating it “will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve.” Explaining that it does not believe that the actions it has been directed to take by the government are consistent with Indian law, Twitter said it has “not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians.”
The controversy reached Parliament with Union Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad making a statement in the Rajya Sabha.
"We respect social media a lot, it has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the digital India program. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news and violence, then action will be taken," Prasad said in a stern warning to Twitter to fall in line.
What Next in the 'Toolkit' Battle?
According to the new IT Rules introduced in February, Patra can file a grievance with Twitter’s grievance officer. The platform is required to take action within 15 days of the complaint or it can be escalated to Tier-II (industry level grievance redressal body) or even Tier-III – an inter-ministerial Committee.
While this Committee can ask a platform to delete or block content, it remains to be seen whether these powers extend to ordering Twitter to remove labels and whether Patra & Co would actually choose to go down that path.
Be it Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya accusing Muslim health workers of an alleged bed scam or the current Toolkit controversy, in the last couple of months, controversies provoked by BJP leaders appear to have backfired.
While the BJP or the Centre can continue to prolong this current staring contest, it may bode well to turn the gaze on other more pressing matters of its fight against the coronavirus.
(Sushovan Sircar is an independent journalist who reports on technology and cyber policy developments. His reports explore stories at the intersection of internet and society, covering issues of privacy, surveillance, cybersecurity, India’s data regime, social media and emerging technologies. He tweets @Maha_Shoonya. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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