German philosopher and theorist Jürgen Habermas gave us the concept of public sphere. As opposed to the state narrative, which was largely meant for the consumption of a passive public, the public sphere was the space where a society had conversation with itself through newspapers, journals, reading clubs, coffee houses and so on. With the rise of commercial big media, Habermas rued the death of the public sphere. As TV news aligned itself with the state or powerful groups, it was reduced to propaganda. Case in point: how TV news and big media manufacture public consent for America’s endless wars.
There was a time of revolution, when the blogging wave hit one country after the other. Unhindered by the limitations of traditional media, bloggers across the world were shaking up public discourse. This is before Twitter and Facebook arrived, and the phrase social media had not even been heard of. It seemed like a time of great promise for freedom and liberty. The mainstream media’s hegemony over public conversation was being undone.
With Facebook and, particularly, Twitter, it seemed as if the public could have the public sphere back. The Arab Spring and myriad other revolutions big and small across the world were proof. Habermas himself appreciated the power of the internet to be subversive against authoritarian regimes, but worried about fragmentation. There was no unified public sphere anymore, it seemed.
He needn’t have worried. Twitter’s Trending Topic section for instance (copied unsuccessfully by Facebook) tried to create a unified sense of a public conversation. We now have the opposite problem: Twitter’s Trending Topics is actually ‘Manipulated Topics’. Almost every single trend is an organised political or commercial activity. The public sphere is dead once again. The people’s voice is now drowned out by that of the state narrative.
If you watch PBS Frontline’s recent documentary film ‘The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia’, most of it will seem like a privileged insight into Mohammad bin Salman’s way of thinking about the future of Saudi Arabia, both in terms of modernising it and his authoritarianism. It’s an educational film about the social and political transformation a country is going through. Much of the film is about the Saudi government’s brutal execution of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
There’s a point in the film that’s chilling to watch for someone in India: the Saudi government’s use of Twitter to harass and intimidate critics into silence, to dominate the public narrative and use propaganda to push out critical conversation. A political expert in the film says the Saudi crown prince uses Twitter as a primary means of shaping the public debate and thus controlling power.
It’s chilling to watch this in India because that’s exactly what happens in India today. And India is not the only country in the world where this would seem familiar. There are very few countries where it will seem unfamiliar. The ease with which governments and powerful groups manipulate Twitter and hijack the public conversation are in contrast to the promise of social media. Here is a medium that was meant to be a subversive tool against authoritarian regimes. Instead, it has become a powerful weapon in the hands of authoritarian regimes. Worse, it is enabling authoritarianism, making India and America and Saudi Arabia all look quite alike.
When Saudi seems familiar to India
Once seen as a democratising force, Twitter is now emerging as a top threat to democracy all over the world.
While Twitter is about influencers, Facebook is about masses. We have seen how, in the US and elsewhere, Facebook has been used to indoctrinate the masses through fake news. In countries like Brazil and India, WhatsApp has emerged as a fake news distributor. But Facebook as a company gets a lot of flak for this, and for good reason. Politicians in the US are threatening to break up Facebook as a company because it’s just too big.
Twitter, on the other hand, gets away with murder.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was found that the authorities apparently had a mole inside Twitter leaking the private data of citizens.
Twitter’s pompous hippy CEO, Jack Dorsey, recently announced a complete ban on political advertising on the social media platform. This was to cock a snook at Facebook. But Twitter never had a fake news ad problem. One doesn’t need to even advertise on Twitter to manipulate it. It’s telling that Dorsey’s platform does not even have a fake news policy. You’re allowed to spread fake news on Twitter but you can’t put out an ad advertising your truthful political campaign. That’s Twitter for you.
Until now, Twitter in India was a bumbling fool not knowing what to do. Its policies were more arbitrary than malicious. But now it has taken a clear turn towards the dark side. Anti-establishment critics are seeing their Twitter accounts get suspended for the silliest of reasons. People get blackmail messages through the misuse of Twitter’s reporting tools: your account is locked until you delete this harmless tweet. By contrast, there have been incidents when Twitter has not found rape and death threats to be violative of its policies.
Meanwhile, hate-mongering flourishes on the platform. It took Twitter more than 48 hours to remove Muslim-bashing hashtags from its Trending Topics last month. Its policies about verifying public figures or taking down violent threats used to be arbitrary; now they are plain discriminatory. The case of Sanjay Hegde is a turning point for Twitter in India. The platform’s reputation for neutrality and fairness is now ruined irreparably.
We can sit back and watch in total resignation. We can protest but we won’t be heard since Twitter is clearly busy crawling before all the world’s authoritarian regimes. Or, we can try an alternative, such as the decentralised Mastodon, that many in India have begun trying. Whatever the answer, we have to find one.
Views are personal.