When anonymous right-wing account @TrueIndology was suspended by Twitter last month, a number of supporters immediately cried foul and started a campaign to bring it back. Of the hundreds of tweets posted with the hashtag #bringbackTrueIndology, one stood out for two reasons—what it said, and who had posted it.
Amit Boni, a well-known name in the Indian tech industry, promised to soon start a crowd-funded project to build an alternative to Twitter that would change the “behavior of leftist malcontents” through “nothing more than economics”. In his tweet, he also tagged former Infosys CFO TV Mohandas Pai, who is now better known for his pro-BJP rhetoric than his tech ventures.
Boni, the former country head of Motorola India, has also worked at an upcoming smart devices brand called Smartron and global tech and manufacturing company Honeywell.
Speaking to HuffPost India over the phone, Boni said that he doesn’t use Twitter much, and that the post was a response to the ban of the TrueIndology account.
“You support one party and I support another, that is democracy. No one should tell me—or you—that you’re not allowed to say what you feel,” said Boni. “Twitter has a lot of users in India, but not much revenue here, its revenue base is outside India, so they won’t mould the product to our needs.”
Both Twitter and Facebook have been repeatedly accused by various pro-BJP groups of being biased against India’s right-wing. In February, many users including Union minister Kiren Rijiju said the retweets and likes for their tweets were disappearing. While Twitter blamed this on a glitch, many right-wing users claimed it was a deliberate attempt to stifle their voices.
While many conservative voices in the US also claim that Twitter censors them, in India, a parliamentary panel took it seriously enough to question the firm’s senior executives.
A HuffPost India investigation had found that a secretive organisation called Association of Billion Minds ran sophisticated misinformation campaigns and spread fake news online for the BJP. Social media is being gamed across the political spectrum, with fake trends and automated posts, and the BJP has been at the forefront of this development.
So when a tech industry insider floats the idea of an Alt-Twitter, it’s worth asking whether there really is any bias as right-wingers claim, and whether an alternative to Twitter and Facebook is a possibility.
Are Facebook and Twitter biased?
Both Twitter and Facebook were summoned by the Parliamentary Committee on IT earlier this year to answer questions about political bias. However, opposition leaders have said that the BJP is eager to regulate Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp in order to protect its online troll army.
Colin Crowell, Head of Global Public Policy and Philanthropy at Twitter, had responded by writing that Twitter is a platform for voices across the spectrum.
“To be clear, we do not review, prioritize, or enforce our policies on the basis of political ideology,” he wrote. “As our CEO and others have stated publicly, Twitter does not use political ideology to rank content on our service.”
In an interview with HuffPost India last year, the founder of the BJP’s IT cell, Prodyut Bora, who quit the party in 2015, spoke about how social media went from being a tool for improved coordination, to a platform for harassing and intimidating the party’s critics.
Nevertheless, both Twitter and Facebook keep attempting to meet right-wing critics to prove they’re not biased, and in the process sometimes make things worse by validating and lending credence to the most outlandish claims.
And then, when a right-wing handle like TrueIndology is banned for spreading misinformation, it just becomes a flag to be waved as proof. For example, Twitter banned Rishi Bagree last year, after a long history of spreading fake news. This immediately became a cause for outrage, much like the ban of TrueIndology now.
That’s why today, on sites like Quora (which tends to attract a lot of pro-Hindutva posters as well) there are multiple posts about why it was unfair of Twitter to ban TrueIndology. The fact that the user had a backup account and still continues to post doesn’t seem to matter to the people lamenting the ban either.
However, Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University in the US who, along with his colleague Patrick Warren, spent months researching Twitter, toldQuartz India that it made no sense for Twitter to target right-wing Indians.
“Liberals on Twitter are more likely to share mainstream media and conservatives are more likely to share fake news and other questionable content,” Linvill told Quartz. “It may be that conservatives are being disproportionately targeted by Twitter, but it may have nothing to do with ideology. It may be that Twitter’s algorithms identify something questionable in what a user has shared and then take action. Also, echo chambers could mean that conservatives simply don’t understand the extent to which actions are taken against left-leaning Twitter users. It is easy to make incorrect assumptions with only half the data.”
Imagine the data points which could be found through such a network. Which could create an AI-based platform for identifying the issues in our country, and making it better?
Still, do right-wing users need an alternative?
Boni said he envisions a vernacular and voice-led platform as the best way forward to provide Indians with an alternative.
“We as a country of 1.3 billion people need—and deserve—to create a product that can go out into the world. So far, we’ve been a service country that has produced companies like Infosys and Wipro, but Google has so many Indians, why are they able to build products only with foreign companies?”
Why does that product have to be a social network in particular?
Boni said that the mass adoption of this product will only happen through communities, and that is most likely to develop through a social network.
However, there have already been a few attempts at this, in India and around the world. Most have disappeared without a trace. The most successful example in America was Gab, a Twitter alternative. However, research showed that Gab is something of a ghost town. Out of the top ten Gab users (by follower count) identified in an academic paper published in March 2018, only three of posted in June 2018. The same study found that 43 per cent of users on the platform aren’t following a single user. What about in India?
One breakout success here is Sharechat, which is a “no-English” platform that works like a mix of Twitter and Facebook, and has a large and highly engaged audience. So far though, it seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Most social networks that aimed to dethrone Facebook or Twitter have failed because there just wasn’t enough momentum behind them, which led to limited engagement between users.
There’s also the fact that if all the right-wing voices are in one platform, then reaching out to and converting apolitical users will come to a standstill, as they would still be on the existing mainstream platforms, nullifying the political agenda.
“Twitter is a melting pot of conversations, of people from diverse backgrounds, who believe that their opinion should be heard,” said Aakriti Bhargava, whose tech-driven PR startup Wizikey just raised a round of funding from the Indian Angels Network. “Even if there is another Twitter, for it to flourish, it would need people who can agree, oppose, inform, share and debate. In any other format, it would be incomplete and meaningless and would lack stickiness.”
“I believe that at the scale at which Twitter exists today, with the level of technology backing it, a right wing Twitter would be a fail whale.”
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a separate right-wing version of Twitter either. An echo chamber could serve to amplify bigotry and hate, which already happens even on Twitter.
“It’s about controlling speech and building a clique, which would create more hate,” said Shalini Singh, founder of matchmaking platform andwemet, and public relations firm Galvanise PR. “Social media is like an open dam - which is scary. That’s why we use social media to share about the brand. If we have an opinion, we share it on to one.”
Globally, sites like 8chan and Voat were formed by users who complained about “censorship” by left-liberal “SJWs” on 4chan and Reddit, respectively. Both new sites grew quickly and have a small but dedicated fanbase, but the content on there is often so full of hate-mongering that their growth is automatically limited to people who are radicalized, or are on the path already.
Boni agreed that there have been some attempts in the past, but said that such a network would also create a lot of value for India.
“Imagine the data points which could be found through such a network. Which could create an AI-based platform for identifying the issues in our country, and making it better?” Boni said.
“Today, Twitter is just a slugfest, and while I know it would be very much an uphill struggle, I believe there is a value in this,” he added.