NEW DELHI/ BENGALURU — Opposition party MPs who are members of the Parliamentary Committee for Information Technology say the committee’s recent interest in regulating social media platforms like Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook just before the elections, is the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)’s way to discourage them from acting against the BJP’s well-documented online army of abusive trolls.
On February 25, Twitter’s global policy head Colin Crowell appeared before the committee and assured members that Twitter does not use political ideology to rank content and there will be no adverse influence on India’s upcoming elections. Tomorrow, on March 6, Facebook Vice-President Joel Kaplan is expected to meet the committee to discuss how Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram are protecting users.
“The BJP believes that social media should be inclined towards them but it is not so to the extent it would like therefore it wants to teach them a lesson,” Binoy Viswam, a Rajya Sabha MP from the Communist Party of India (CPI) and member of the committee told HuffPost India. “Before election, it is trying to send a message to social media that if you do not follow our diktats, we will put pressure on you through various instruments of the government.”
While there appears to be bipartisan support on the need to regulate social media platforms, the fact that company executives are being summoned well after the final session of the 16th Lok Sabha, and shortly before a crucial general election, has added to opposition parties’ concerns. The committee is chaired by the BJP MP Anurag Thakur and, like all parliamentary committees, has members from both ruling and opposition political parties from both houses of parliament.
“The BJP-led central government wanted to control the social media. They promoted all social media platforms in the previous election but this election they are thinking that it will go wrong,” Congress MP DK Suresh, a member of the IT Committee shared his take about why the Anurag Thakur-led committee began pursuing the matter. “So they wanted to control in every way to prevent the social media from going against it.”
“There needs to be a regulation on social media,” added Viswam, the CPI MP. “But now I feel that the government and the BJP are not interested in a democratic regulation, they are trying to arm-twist them in tune with their political agenda. Somehow they believe the social media platforms are against them.”
Another committee member, a parliamentarian from one of the opposition parties, told Huffpost India that he felt the BJP members on the committee seemed to be in a “hurry” to hold meetings even though the Lok Sabha’s current term was over.
“We wanted to postpone the meetings but it seems they wanted to hold meetings before the election code of conduct sets in possibly before sixth or seventh of March,” the opposition party member said, requesting anonymity.
Twitter’s The Villain
Several BJP MPs who are part of the committee believe that Twitter has an inherent ‘‘anti-Right Wing’’ bias. Twitter, it may be recalled, was the first social media platform to be summoned by the committee.
A source with knowledge of the matter cited an instance to substantiate the ruling party’s claim about Twitter’s “bias” against it and the right-wing ecosystem. This instance was pertaining to the suddenly diminished popularity of the tweets of an influential cabinet minister, in contrast to opposition leader Rahul Gandhi’s rising engagement on the platform in one specific week early this year. However, this could not be independently confirmed by HuffPost India.
In an interview with HuffPost India, the BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP and head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, agreed that “Twitter was the trigger” for the parliamentary committee to look into the issue of regulating social media platforms.
However, when asked if the recent protest by a BJP-supporting group against twitter’s “anti-right wing attitude” was the reason for the committee to consider the matter, he said, “That doesn’t seem to be the case.”
He said, “There was a clamour from all parties that everyone should be invited. Communist Party Member Binoy Viswam was emphatic that all should be invited and nobody had any objection to that.” On his part, Viswam confirmed this while speaking with this reporter but recalled the sequence of events a little differently. “I asked why there is prejudice against twitter? Whatever you wish to ask twitter should be applicable to others also. Then they were forced to call others also,” he said.
The committee, Sahasrabuddhe said, also focused on an issue that has vexed law-makers across the globe: Social media platforms insist they are simply platforms with no political bias or ideology, while simultaneously talking up how they serve specific bits of news content to particular users based on algorithms that try to predict the user’s likes and dislikes.
Sahasrabuddhe said this means the company is, in fact, playing an editorial role.
“Once you are in the business of selecting content, then you become a media house of sorts. And for media organisations, as we understand, there are different sets of rules and regulations, including FDI related issues and other things” the Rajya Sabha MP said. “Therefore, this issue will have to be resolved.”
Sahasrabuddhe said he did not believe in top down regulation but preferred that some “regulatory mechanism” was suggested by the platforms themselves.
“We have to build public opinion in such a way that these platforms try to adopt some self-regulation,” he explained.
The BJP’s Anurag Thakur, who heads the Parliamentary Committee for IT, insisted that the push for regulation was prompted by a concern for citizen welfare.
“We have been receiving a lot of complaints for various social media platforms,” said Anurag Thakur, Head, Parliamentary Committee on IT. “And just to safeguard the interest of the citizens, and to make sure that nothing goes wrong, we are trying to understand from the government and the social media platforms as well that why people are complaining, what has changed.”
The BJP was the first major political party to grasp the social media’s role in spreading party propaganda and Narendra Modi used it effectively while making a bid for the position of Prime Minister in 2014.
Soon after coming to power, PM Modi would travel to the US and meet various business leaders of the Silicon Valley. In return, a huge number of global tech leaders have also made multiple visits to India, and made a stop at the Prime Minister’s office along the way.
However, just as the BJP and Modi government have garnered praise for making effective use of social media in election campaigns and governance, respectively, the party especially has a significant share of critics as well. Among them are those who worked with the IT Cell of the BJP in the past.
In an interview with HuffPost India last year, the founder of the BJP’s IT cell Prodyut Bora described how the party initially looked for ways to improve coordination within the BJP, before realising that platforms like Twitter and Facebook could be used to harass and intimidate the party’s critics.
“It’s like Frankenstein’s monster,” he said, describing the BJP IT cell’s current avataar. “During the 2014 campaign, the IT cell was being controlled and managed completely from Gandhinagar. It was being run by the Modi team and I think the rot started there.”