Twitter vs. India – The New York Times

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A exceptional face-off is unfolding between an American web firm and the world’s largest democracy over the suitable bounds of free speech.

The backdrop is ongoing protests of farmers in India opposing new agriculture legal guidelines. The Indian authorities, citing its legal guidelines in opposition to subversion or threats to public order, demanded that Twitter delete or disguise greater than 1,100 accounts that it says have inspired violence or unfold misinformation.

Twitter has complied with a few of India’s orders. But Twitter has refused to take away accounts of journalists, activists and others that the corporate says are appropriately exercising their proper to criticize the federal government.

The authorities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is saying Twitter is breaking the legislation. Twitter is saying that India is breaking its personal legal guidelines. And democracy activists say that tech corporations like Twitter shouldn’t play alongside when governments cross legal guidelines that successfully shut down free speech.

But Twitter is defying a democratically elected government.

People shouldn’t be under the impression that these companies see themselves as above the law. An important distinction in India is that the order came from a government ministry — not a court. Twitter is saying that India’s demands to block accounts or remove posts didn’t come through the regular rule of law.

What other questions does the standoff raise for you?

I have the same question that people asked after Trump was barred from Facebook and Twitter: What about all the other countries? Will Twitter also be more forceful in standing up to governments in Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia? And how far is Twitter willing to go? Would it risk being blocked in India?

(Twitter does not automatically comply when a government — including the United States — requests that the company pull down content or hand over users’ data. Here are Twitter’s disclosures on how often it responds to such requests by the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, India and the United States.)

How should we feel that a few internet companies have the power to shape citizens’ engagement with their governments and set the bounds of appropriate expression?

It’s a problem. These companies have massive and largely unaccountable power. The fundamental question is: Who decides what is legitimate speech on these platforms?

Both the internet companies and governments deserve blame. The companies haven’t provided transparency into their operations, their rules and their enforcement. Instead we have perpetual cycles of what look like seat-of-the-pants decisions in response to public pressure. And governments have largely not done the hard work to create smart regulation.

What does smart regulation look like?

The challenge for democratic governments is to enhance the transparency of social media and put it under a regulatory framework — but not impose content rules that are abused and interfere with the free speech rights of users or the rights of companies to create an environment that they want for users. That’s the persistent tension.

The European Union’s proposed Digital Services Act is quite sophisticated legislation on this. The U.S. is still screwing this up.

(Also read Tom Friedman, the New York Times Opinion columnist, who writes that he’s rooting for Europe’s strategy for regulating the internet.)

Facebook is starting to experiment with reducing the amount of political posts and material in its news feed.

The reason, Mark Zuckerberg explained recently, is that people told Facebook that they “don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience.” But, uhhh, have they seen Facebook?

As my colleague Kevin Roose has reported relentlessly — and as an account he created tweets daily — the Facebook posts with links that tend to get the most reactions, shares and comments are overtly political fests of rage. So what is Facebook doing? Kevin and I chatted about this:

Shira: Haven’t your analyses shown that people do want politics and fury in their news feeds?

Kevin: People contain multitudes, and their stated preferences often don’t match their revealed preferences. If a nutritionist surveyed me about my ideal diet, I’d list healthy foods. But if you put a Big Mac in front of me, I’m going to eat it. I find it believable that Facebook users say they don’t want politics and fury, but when their friend posts a great Bernie Sanders meme …

I also suspect that a relatively small number of people are responsible for a huge amount of interactions on Facebook — and that those super sharers are really into politics. Facebook says that only 6 percent of what users in the United States see is political content, so most of Facebook really might be Instant Pot recipes and baby photos.

Is Facebook’s silent majority the people who don’t want all the politics?

Possibly! Or people just aren’t honest about (or don’t know) what they really want. I guess we’ll find out from this Facebook test.

Should Facebook give us more of what we actually click on, or what we say we want to click on?

Facebook, like basically all social media apps, is designed to give us more of what we like. It’s very lucrative, but this hasn’t gone so well for democracy.

So what if a social network were designed to feed our aspirational selves, rather than our lizard-brain impulses? Would we like it more? Or would we miss the drama and the fighting?

Eight-year-old Leo wrote a stern letter to his NPR station for not having more broadcasts about dinosaurs. So NPR asked Leo to interview a dinosaur expert. It was delightful.

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