June , 2021
Twitter, Whatsapp & the Government
11:59 am

Buroshiva Dasgupta


The use (and abuse) of the social media has, over the years, become a powerful weapon of political propaganda. The all-powerful IT cell of the BJP has left the opposition far behind in its strategy to promote the party’s ideology and action. Earlier, the traditional media – the print, television & radio – were accused of ‘paid news’ when “advertising was masquerading as news”. Now that the social media has removed the line of distinction between advertising/propaganda and news, things have become easier.

It is no point accusing only the Indian social media strategists. We have seen how – and there has been lots of research on this – Barrack Obama had defeated Mrs. Clinton within the Democratic Party to become the presidential candidate and later his Republican opposition by carefully planning the strategies with the social media. The characteristics of the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were studied carefully and used to influence different groups of voters according to their likings and addiction. Donald Trump adopted the social media with greater skill and weaponised it to win the elections, though during the last phase of the 2020 presidential election he overdid things and Twitter, for example, took the unprecedented step of blocking the official presidential Twitter handle.

As a general rule, whoever is in power dislikes media criticism and has always wanted to use the media platform as its propaganda machinery. Let us not blame the communists alone for openly saying so in their ideology. The Article 19/1 of the Indian Constitution gives the ‘fundamental right’ of free speech and expression; but in the next sub-section - Article 19/2 - introduces the ‘reasonable restrictions’. Indian media has suffered because of this ‘dilemma’ of the ruling party since pre-British times when the flag bearers of the Magna Carta introduced the Censorship of the Press Act in 1799. Ever since independence, the government has introduced the ‘regulators’ – Press Council of India for print media, Prasar Bharati for broadcasting, Advertising Standards Council for advertising industry, Censor Board for films and TRAI for telecommunication, mobile phone and indirectly, the social media. But they were not enough.

 We have seen how over the recent past media has lost its credibility, primarily for its faults. But we have perhaps missed the point that systematically ‘loyalists’ have invaded the ‘fourth pillar’ (as also in the three pillars of democracy) to erode things from within. Nobody seems to believe the traditional media today. Social media perhaps was the only saving grace in the extended ‘public sphere’. Through the controversy of ‘net neutrality’ the government, here and elsewhere, tried to control the social media, by browbeating the internet providers. Now comes the Intermediary Guidelines and the Digital Media Ethics Code, under the existing Information Technology Act (known as Information Technology Rules, 2021). Under the rule, government can ask the social media to reveal the source or the originator of a message or tweet. The social media platforms must also employ a compliance officer.

Whatsapp has gone to court and Tweeter is yet to respond fully to the government pressure. The ‘end to end encryption’ of Whatsapp cannot perform under this rule. Tweeter also cannot get away by claiming that it is just a dumb technology where its authorities have no control because the action of ‘blocking’ a tweeter handle is editorial discretion. It’s an interesting battle between the social media and the government, who has used it, very skillfully, to come to power.

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