Twitter turned 10 on 21 March and many erupted into bouts of euphoria (including Twitter administrators). But it would be wrong to ignore the voices of criticism against the microblogging site.
To be sure, Twitter’s contribution to journalistic value is never in doubt — after all, it provides news faster than television, and we all depend upon it.
However, the manner in which it has become a site for vitriolic abuse is a grave cause of concern. And how it addresses that is likely to determine its future.
Abuse versus free speech
To be clear, free speech doesn’t grant a licence to hateful or abusive speech. But Twitter, which started off purporting to be a vehicle and platform of freedom of expression, seems to have sunk into a morass where this essential freedom comes at stake.
Jurgen Habermas, German sociologist, had defined the “public sphere” as a space in which an individual could speak her/his mind without constantly having to look over the shoulder. The Internet, especially Twitter, was assumed to be such a space.
But recent incidents show that Twitter is in danger of sinking into a hole because of the torrent of abuse and vitriol which a certain horde of its users pour on others. Being a business venture, Twitter’s priority has been attracting more users. It’s hasn’t been as effective in tackling abuse.
Only recently, journalists Barkha Dutt and Swati Chaturvedi were compelled to approach the cops after facing a torrential barrage of abuse and death threats on Twitter. They even got severely malevolent phone calls.
Back in February last year, Dick Costolow, Twitter’s former CEO, himself admitted that the company “sucked” at dealing with abuse and it was costing it in terms of business (number of users and Internet traffic).
Being a business venture, Twitter’s priority has been attracting more users, not checking abuse
Geeta Seshu, veteran journalist and one of the leading proponents of the freedom of expression in India and South Asia, says that Twitter has significant informative value, but the way it has been used, also has a “damaging” effect, especially on women users, more so, journalists. People have either been forced to get off the platform, or into self-censorship and ‘control’.
Anja Kovacs, Internet-rights activist and founder of the Internet Democracy Project, states that Twitter is struggling to strike a balance between providing a platform for free speech and tackling hate speech and misogynistic abuse.
High value versus high volume
Prasanto Roy, tech journalist and someone active in the Internet-rights space, says that Twitter chases “high-value” users instead of “high volume” ones. High-value included celebrities and celebrity journalists, whose statements frequently ‘go viral’ (and consequently bring in a good deal of traffic). But Twitter is 77th on the list of downloaded apps on the Google Playstore in India. That in itself, Roy states, bears ample testimony to the fact that “Twitter enjoys a larger than life image in India”.
Most Internet-rights activists also agree that Twitter alone shouldn’t be saddled with all the blame. The law enforcement machinery in India is also to blame, for it and its personnel put nearly-insurmountable hurdles in the path of those who lodge formal complaints of abuse.
The verbosity question
A month or so ago, rumours about Twitter dropping its 140-characters limit (for tweets) were swirling about. Indignant users, who were drawn to Twitter because of its ‘enforced brevity’ protested, and the company did not roll out the plan.
Does a word limit restrict abusive speech? Not really, says Kovacs. People can still be brief and vitriolic, she says.
In fact, many have found out ways to subvert the word-barrier- they write elaborately abusive words on an MS Word document and post it as a screenshot on Twitter.
Twitter is only the 77th most downloaded app on Google Playstore in India
In 2013, Britain’s Caroline Criado Perez received a voluminous number of threats and abuses on Twitter. Her ‘fault’? She was campaigning for author Jane Austen’s picture to be used on the 10 pound note.
A couple of her abusers, who Twitter helped the police track down, were convicted on criminal charges. But in India, Twitter has till date refused to divulge users’ details to the law enforcement agencies even if there has been a criminal complaint.
The social media company’s desire to guard privacy is understandable, given the fact that India’s surveillance laws give sweeping power to the government. But the company’s strategies against abuse would determine its future (business profitability) in India. And the sooner it acts upon it, the better.