This Article is From Aug 16, 2021

Opinion: Rahul Gandhi's Wasted Cause In Attacking Twitter

Just under a week after it locked Rahul Gandhi's account on August 8, Twitter restored the Congress leader's handle.

Let's first understand the chronology of events and then dive into the nuances. 

Mr. Gandhi had tweeted an image of him meeting the parents of a nine-year-old child who was allegedly raped before being killed in Delhi. The tweet was first withheld and then, Mr Gandhi's account was locked. This was followed by the locking of the accounts of 23 senior party leaders and 7 official handles along with that of over 5,000 Congress supporters (as per the party).

From what I know, as part of the appeal process via Twitter's India Grievance Channel, Mr Gandhi submitted a copy of the formal consent/authorisation letter to use the referenced image. The tweet is now withheld in India and the account access has been restored.

This entire episode raises a few questions:

What rules did Mr Gandhi violate? Was the locking of his account justified?

What led to the en-masse blocking of 5,000 Congress workers' Twitter accounts?

Is this an attack on the democratic structure of India? Was it really under pressure from the union government that Twitter took such steps? Is Twitter taking political sides?

Let's try and answer these questions. 

Past guidelines from courts have said that print and electronic media, and people using social media such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter etc., while giving information/circulating information relating to offences under section 376, 376-A, 376-B, 376-C, 376-D or 376-E of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and offences under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, shall not publish/disclose following information in such a manner that the victim will be identified directly or indirectly:

i) The names of the parents or relatives of the victim.

ii) Relation of the accused with the victim.

iii) Residential/occupational/work address of the accused and the victim and the village at which the victim and/ or accused live.

iv) Occupation of the parents or other relations of the victim and place of work of the victim and accused/their parents or any other relative in such a manner that the victim will be identified.

v) If the victim is a student, name of the school or college or any other educational institution or private coaching class or classes which the victim has joined for pursuing her hobbies such as music, drawing, dance, stitching, cooking etc. 

vi) Details of family background of the victim. 

Over the past few years, several leaders and government officials have violated these norms and had to apologize. The most common violation has been disclosing the identity of the rape victims. 

So, to answer my first question - The locking of Mr Gandhi's account was as per established rules and globally-accepted norms. 

Mr. Gandhi could have chosen to simply delete the contentious tweet and then posted the same image with blurred faces and that would have prevented the issue from getting escalated. He chose otherwise, using his discretion or the advice of those around him. 

Coming to the second issue: the temporary locking of one account is fine - but 5,000 accounts? Did Twitter want to muzzle the voice of India's biggest opposition party?

Well, we all have read or at least heard about the usage of Artificial Intelligence (AI) by big technology firms. Twitter also uses AI for detection of bot and impersonator accounts. Congress workers and leaders started to change their profile pictures and names to that of 'Rahul Gandhi' to show support for their leader. An automated AI bot identified these as potential impersonator accounts and locked them. It was not as if the entire team at Twitter headquarters was sitting and blocking accounts of people belonging to a certain political party in India. 

The third and the biggest concern in this entire episode has been about whether Twitter bowed down to the central government. In the current age of real-time information dissemination, Twitter has replaced news wire services. Despite of other platforms having more users, Twitter is what feeds the news cycle, and thus, it is very important for it to be unbiased and create a level playing field. 

It needs to be kept in mind here that over the past few years, Twitter has come to loggerheads several time with the ruling establishment in India. Things hit a low when BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra tweeted screenshots of a 'Congress toolkit' which was marked by Twitter as Manipulated Media. The Congress alleged that the toolkit was fake and forged letters were used in the screenshots shared by Mr. Patra and the party raised the issue with Twitter. An FIR was also filed against some BJP leaders for retweeting the same. Following this, Twitter added the "manipulated media" tag to Patra's tweet on May 21.

Soon after the incident on May 24, Delhi Police visited Twitter India's Delhi, Gurugram offices to serve a notice to the social media platform directly on the 'toolkit case'. Then Twitter accused the government of "dangerous overreach inconsistent with open, democratic principles."

Just three months down the line, it is the Congress which is now accusing Twitter of siding with the ruling establishment. The AICC's Secretary in-charge of communications Pranav Jha went to the extent of calling Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey a "vassal".

I believe the Congress was fighting the wrong battle in engaging with Twitter rather than following globally established norms. With parliament in session, India's biggest Opposition party would have done better in raising issues like Pegasus, petrol prices and protesting farmers.

Ex Congress Spokesperson Sanjay Jha had a pertinent point to make on the issue, tweeting that "Twitter has taken on the Modi attacking Twitter....Congress has only ended up helping BJP's cause."

Hopefully, with its accounts restored, the Congress will again focus on being a better Opposition party on the ground and not indulge in unnecessary fights with social media platforms.

(Ankit Lal is Political Strategist and Author, India Social.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.