The deletion of US President Donald Trump’s Twitter handle by the social media company is unacceptable regardless of what the high-profile user was or was not doing with the facility. The usual defence of a private enterprise that it is like a club, the membership of which one must seek on the terms of the club, does not apply for the simple reason that none of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networking or messaging sites is by nature a club or a community. And if it is not a community, how can it be allowed to have something called community rules? In a neighbourhood, a club does not function in an essential domain like global communication. While such essential requirements of human beings — like a telephone or broadband service — can very much be provided by private companies, when a user abuses the medium, it’s the police primarily, and not the service provider, that takes action. And the police department is a state force, not a private one. One is sure the ilk of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg know what a private police force is called: Militia. Of course, notwithstanding the confession of one of them about the political skew in the staff of his company, they wouldn’t agree they are mercenaries, let alone terrorists comparable to insurgent forces who hold villages, jungles, hills, etc to ransom and execute people who do not follow the ‘community standards’ of the banana republic they carve out of a troubled country. Their disagreement but cannot stop the state from intervening. Whereas it was difficult in the convoluted American jurisprudence for the POTUS to do anything beyond expressing disapproval of the high-handedness of Twitter, the state machinery in other countries cannot be as helpless. Today, it was Trump; tomorrow it could be another major political party and its leader in a different country whose electoral fate Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat could determine through selective censorship and punitive actions like heckling by warning, then a suspension of the account and finally total elimination of the social media profile.
Not entirely appreciative of the gravity of the situation, Indian Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had, some months ago, written an apology of a protest letter to Zuckerberg, whining that it was unfair of the company of the latter to have gone after the ruling party’s supporters. ‘Loser’ was writ large on the letter, the writer of which had assumed it would have an impact on a businessman who does not give two hoots even to summons by Indian courts and parliamentary committees. That plea was made worse by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tweet that betrayed an unprincipled switching of support. Certainly, India now has to do business with US President-elect Joe Biden. More definitely, the prime minister of India could not have condoned the rioters who hit the Capitol. But ignoring the choice of being silent on the issue, Modi chose to deliver a politically correct message. The tweet condemning the violence and appealing for a peaceful transition of power suggests he would not be satisfied merely by being a ‘right-wing’ leader whom the left finds manageable. He would ensure the intelligentsia gets the message by making the kind of noise they hail. This comes from the avarice of a politician who cannot let go of a medium that helps him connect to a large section of his constituency. Hopefully, he realises before it’s too late that trying to humour the left is comparable to the previous BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ludicrous Himayat Committee, the efficacy of Muslim endorsement in which stood exposed in the result of the 2004 election.
The sheer size of the audience, viewership and readership that a social media platform offers to a politician may get him so enamoured that he turns oblivious of the bargain: These companies need markets like a populous, Internet-rich India as much as citizens and statesmen alike need these companies. Stopping short of a ban like in China, which made all these giants turn plaintiffs before the CCP with the impossible hope that Beijing would let any of them in, there is a lot every democratic yet no-nonsense state can do to stop Twitter, Facebook — along with WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram — from running a parallel administration. They cannot be permitted to have what they celebrate as community standards. Accepting these rules is tantamount to letting private entities legislate. Instead, the laws of the land where the social media companies do business may turn into de facto rules of the networking sites. If the state muzzles free speech, voters can at least throw a regime out in the next election; at the mercy of a private party, users have been reduced to slaves. In any case, the rules presuppose that the recipients of a social media message have such intrinsic aptitude that they cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. The fact is, if WhatsApp is taken as an example of rampant abuse by users, the discerning and able-bodied could distinguish between information and propaganda even when there were no restrictions in place. Those who could not were anyway too old to be provoked by a forwarded message to run amok in the streets, imperilling lives and properties of others. It is only under the condition that the laws suffice and, therefore, a company has no business adding its rules to the statutes, that a country ought to allow a social media company to penetrate and operate in its territory.