Social media platforms must be neutral, transparent and consistent in their decision-making process. But as the ongoing exchange between the government and social media platform, Twitter, shows, their actions often invite the charge of being partisan, of unaccountable power, of being a law unto themselves. On Thursday, Information and Technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad accused Twitter of “double standards”. Prasad was referring to the alleged difference in approach taken by Twitter with respect to the events at Capitol Hill in the US and the Red Fort in India on Republic Day. This comes after the government issued notices seeking the blocking of social media accounts for allegedly spreading misinformation and provocative content in the aftermath of the violence witnessed during the tractor march by farmers on January 26. While Twitter did block some accounts, in its response it has stated that the accounts it had not blocked, either on January 31 or after the February 4 notice, were consistent with their policies on free speech and that the platform believed that “the notices sent to it were not consistent with laws in the country”.
That’s a good thing but, of course, the seeming arbitrariness of decision-making of social media platforms is not an India-specific concern. A few days ago, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his displeasure at the way social media platforms which had “helped President Trump to be so efficient” “suddenly cut the mic” the moment “they were sure he was (out of) power”. This lack of consistency and the absence of clearly defined rules on part of social media platforms is sparking anxieties and conversations around the world. Considering the immense power wielded by these platforms — they contribute to shaping online public discourse — how these issues are resolved will have far-reaching effects. The decision of when to “cut the mic” cannot arguably be left in the hands of a private player alone, where it is made by unelected executives with questionable incentive structures and opaque systems of accountability.
The government also needs to be more transparent in its decision-making. When it asks a social media platform to block hundreds of accounts, that must be guided by a pre-defined and publicly disclosed set of rules. Failure to do so means that for all the government’s talk of freedom of expression and open democratic systems, the blacklist can be used to silence critical voices. The absence of information only serves to strengthen mistrust. In the confrontation between big tech and government, both have much to consider and many questions to answer.