Twitter has evolved into a very important social media platform in India that has a significant influence on the discourse in society and provides a channel for social debates and discussions. A twitter handle represents a person who is putting out his or her views on social media. However, the real identity of the person on social media is hidden, providing anonymity (and thus protection) to the real user.
Wondering what is True Indology? It is a handle on the popular social media platform, Twitter.
Since July 2019, this particular handle, True Indology, has been giving snippets on Indian culture and history from the perspective of the owner of this handle. The Twitter ID of the handle is @tiinexile (Twitter ID is the unique ID that one registers with, pretty much like a unique email ID, where one can use any name). The snippets appear to be fairly well researched. The handle seems to be immensely popular with over a quarter of a million followers.
So, what is the issue? The owner of the handle received a death threat on Twitter, who impersonated the True Indology handle, with the same name, but a different Twitter ID. This amounted to identity theft, in addition to the death threat. Interestingly, this impersonation has been going on for over a year, and the owner of the real “True Indology” handle, and many of the followers of the handle, have been reporting the fake handle to Twitter. However, there was no action taken by Twitter, possibly in the interest of free speech, even at the cost of death threats. Of course, freedom of speech is precious and needs to be well guarded.
However, for any right-minded person who has got a death threat from someone who seemed to be a religious zealot, it is a matter of high concern. In the Facebook page of the owner of True Indology (whose identity is not known and hopefully it stays that way), the owner of True Indology handle also claims that his fears for personal safety were further fueled by what happened to Kamlesh Tiwari, who was killed based on religious instigations. Also, the person appears to be a professional, who wanted to focus on his or her profession and not be disturbed by death threats. Hence the owner of True Indology temporarily deactivated the account, to let matters cool down for a few days.
A few days later, when the owner of the handle reactivated the True Indology handle, the person received a rude shock to see a negligible fraction of the over quarter of a million followers that the handle had earlier. Twitter claims that it takes a maximum of 48 hours to restore all the followers. However, even after over 70 hours, when I checked the account, it still had negligible followers. What was even more interesting is that if anyone tried to follow True Indology, the person would be automatically made to unfollow the handle. So essentially, Twitter was actively stopping people from following True Indology, while all that while, allowing the fake “True Indology” account to exist, and get followers who thought they were following the real True Indology.
The case got even more curious. The twitter ID @tiinexile of the real “True Indology” could not be searched out on Twitter. It had been blanked out, while the impersonating handle, was being allowed to function with a message “Back Up”, which tried to portray that it is the real handle that has now come back. Many prominent personalities such as Mohandas Pai, co-founder of Infosys, fell prey to the fake handle and started following it.
This is in the backdrop of Twitter unilaterally blocking this handle earlier also.
The issue is, the free speech of an Indian citizen is being blocked by a foreign platform, that has gained a digital monopoly in India, and where, the writ of the Indian constitution holds scant regard. The enshrined principles of Free speech are implemented as per the whims and fancies of the platform, which is now an important part of the discourse happening in the nation. By blocking a handle, Twitter is snatching away the fundamental rights of an Indian citizen. What appears to be an even bigger transgression of natural justice, is that the handle that issued the death threat is allowed to operate without any hindrances.
So, who controls the national discourse in the country, in an era where the discourse has rapidly moved to digital platforms, and specifically to a few very large digital monopolies, none of which are Indian? Neither the platforms nor the promoters of the platforms are under any significant ambit of the law of the land, especially when it pertains to free speech. The national discourse is being adjudicated under the whims and fancies of overgrown foreign MNC’s. This is an assault on the sovereignty of the country where it cannot provide the right to free speech to its citizens.
There are again puerile counter-arguments that the government has no right to interfere with corporate business and the corporation has the right to run its business whichever way it wants, as long as it is abiding with whatever limited laws apply to it. However, there is something deeply wrong in such an argument. When the national discourse is running on such digital platforms, then how the platform conducts itself, is of significant importance to the government and the citizens. Imagine saying the same about television, magazines, and newspapers – whatever is being written or said in such media is their business matter and the government should not interfere. It would be disastrous for the nation. Similarly, the government abdicating the cyberspace and the discussions on cyberspace, especially on mediums that have evolved to become digital monopolies, and not have appropriate regulation to ensure freedom of speech and responsible behavior of the platforms, will be disastrous.
There is, therefore, an urgent need to have regulations to protect the right of Indian citizens to free speech and to institutionalize an office of neutral adjudicators for social media platforms, where the citizen’s right to free speech can be upheld.
(Views are personal)
*Dr Jaijit Bhattacharya is President of Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research.