Following an opinion poll, Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk reinstated the account of former US president Donald Trump. Twitter should now unblock all those accounts that were banned/suspended under its previous owner Jack Dorsey. Foremost among those is Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut, whose Twitter account was permanently suspended in may 2021 following “repeated violations of Twitter Rules specifically (its) Hateful Conduct policy and Abusive Behaviour policy”.
Kangana, a recipient of many awards, is known for her hyper, and many times atrocious, views on caste, religion and politics. She was suspended after her tweet calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “tame” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee by showing his “Virat roop from early 2000’s”, a seeming reference to the 2002 Gujarat riots that took place when Modi was the state’s chief minister.
Trump’s account was suspended in the aftermath of the US Capitol violence by his supporters on 6 January 2021 following the results of the 2020 US presidential election that Trump lost. Twitter at the time said that “risk of further incitement of violence” was the reason for permanently suspending his account. Facebook and Instagram followed suit and suspended Trump’s accounts. Few days later, Twitter banned Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s account. Twitter later clarified that the handle it took down was fake.
This whole business of banning and suspending user accounts by social media companies is under scanner now. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram banning accounts and taking down tweets and posts is rampant in India as well. My own account on Twitter was disabled in 2019 and Twitter never told me the reasons for doing so.
As far as Kangana Ranaut is concerned, we hold opposing views on most issues. She objected when I wrote an opinion piece on Oprah Winfrey endorsing Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents.
She wrote a series of tweets criticising the reservation policy. But despite her opposing views, I want Kangana Ranaut back on Twitter for four reasons.
Bring Kangana Back Again
First, Kangana’s, or for that matter anyone’s, suspension from Twitter or similar platform is against the idea of social media and the internet. The foundation of social media rests on the promise that everyone gets a chance here to present their views. The foundation of social media was shaken by what companies did in the case of Trump and Kangana. It is good that Elon Musk is trying to change that. The traditional mainstream media has been reporting everything that Trump has been saying as the former US president. In such a situation, there is no logic that his statements should not appear on social media. This is true for Kangana as well. It’s not that her views aren’t publicly available. They are not available only on Twitter. As I have written earlier, “universality is the masonic stone of the entire edifice of social media. Once this masonic stone is gone, the whole structure could crumble in no time.”
Second, Twitter is acting like a publisher but claiming that it’s only a platform. Reinstating Trump has again triggered the debate as to what exactly are social media companies. If they are platforms, then they have no right or business moderating or influencing the discussion/content. Every person or organisation using that platform is theoretically responsible for the content. In this scenario, the only controller or arbitrator should be the laws of the concerned nation or international laws. If the social media company assumes the power to remove any content or account, it means it has entered into the domain of content moderation, a job of the publisher. Gatekeeping should be better left to the publisher. In any case, social media companies assuming the role of a publisher will have huge legal implications since millions of users churn out a large amount of content on these platforms. Content moderation is an almost impossible task on a social media platform.
Third, muzzling Kangana’s voice is against the spirit of the public sphere and amounts to denial of freedom of speech. Unrestricted, unhindered, and equal access to free speech is very important in and for a democracy. In the era of social media, millions of people communicate with each other through social media. This has evolved as the most important arena of public discourse. Social media’s importance in idea formation and opinion making is undeniable. It impacts the social and political life of nations. Elections are also being impacted by discussions on social media. That is the reason political parties and leaders are spending millions of rupees on social media teams and IT cells. In such a scenario, should a handful of social media employees be allowed to become the sole arbitrator to decide who can speak and whose voice will be curbed? Access to free speech should not be denied to anyone, and at least theoretically, everybody should be able to take part in the conversation.
Fourth, India has rules and legislation in place to deal with hate speech. Twitter employees and algorithms cannot, and should not, replace Constitution and law books. The Indian Penal Code, the Indian Constitution, laws on defamation, rules of parliamentary privileges, rules against contempt of court, SC/ST (PoA) Act, the Information Technology Act and many such laws are there to take care of illegality in the sphere of social media.
Let the law be the judge. Let social media remain only a platform.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and has authored books on media and sociology. He tweets @Profdilipmandal. Views are personal.
This article can also be read in Hindi here.
(Edited by Prashant)