Twitter on Friday denied taking action or shaping policies based on political ideology on accounts in India, one of the company’s largest and fastest growing markets, after nationalist, right-wing users in the country accused it of being biased against them.
“Whether it’s trends, how we enforce our policies, or the content that appears in your timeline, we believe in impartiality and do not take any actions based upon political viewpoints,” wrote Colin Crowell, Twitter’s Vice President of Global Public Policy in a blog post published by the company. “Our product and policies are never developed nor evolved on the basis of political ideology.”
Twitter’s statement comes three days before its Indian executives are scheduled to appear before a 31-member Parliamentary Committee, which will also have representatives from India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
The committee will examine the issue of “Safeguarding citizens right on social/online news media platforms” according to a tweet from chairman Anurag Thakur, who is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s ruling nationalist party. A Times of India report said that members of the committee would bring up allegations of political bias against Twitter in the meeting. Thakur did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
India, which has a population of 1.3 billion, will head into major national elections some time in the next few months, that will determine whether Narendra Modi, the country’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, remains in power. Intense political polarization has taken off on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook during Modi’s reign, which began in 2014.
Right-wing Indians have claimed that Twitter artificially throttles the reach of their accounts (a practice known as “shadow banning”), arbitrarily bans or suspends accounts that support the Indian government, reduces follower counts, takes off right-wing topics from its Trending section, and deliberately displays their tweets lower in people’s Twitter timelines.
At the end of January, before the Parliamentary Committee summoned Twitter’s Indian executives for questioning, Ishkaran Singh Bhandari, a conservative New Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, sent in a representation titled “Discriminatory And Unfair Practises (sic) By Twitter, Inc. Which Are A National Security Threat” to India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, a federal ministry in charge of India’s internal security and domestic policy.
“Twitter has been selective and deliberately [targeting] individual accounts that do not subscribe to or support a leftist ideology,” Bhandari wrote in the letter. “[A] biased and selective monopolistic platform is detrimental to the rights of citizens,” he added, and urged the ministry to “question Twitter officials as done in the United States” to “ensure impartiality” before India’s national elections, a reference to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's testimony about the company’s alleged political bias in front of a US House Committee on Energy and Commerce in September 2018 in which he said: “Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions, whether related to ranking content on our service or how we enforce our rules.”
Bhandari doesn't agree. “Twitter can’t interfere with free speech in an election year,” he told BuzzFeed News. “If they’re still biased against the right-wing despite being questioned by the Committee, I’ll take them to court.”
Vikas Pandey, who runs “I Support Narendra Modi”, a large Modi fan page on Facebook with over 16 million followers, told BuzzFeed News that he was concerned that executives working in Twitter’s Indian policy team belonged to the far-left and were letting their personal ideological biases frame Twitter’s Indian policy. On Feb. 4, Pandey led a protest outside Twitter’s New Delhi office that he claims was attended by over 800 right-wingers “frustrated” about the company’s bias against them. “We just want to be treated equally,” he said.
In its blog post on Friday, Twitter denied such claims of unequal treatment. The company said it does not take into account political ideology when deciding to ban or suspend accounts, decide which topics trend, or determine which tweets show up in people’s timelines. It also clarified that Twitter’s Indian employees do not make enforcement decisions. “This is by design to ensure fairness and objectivity,” Crowell wrote.
Some legal experts have criticized the Parliamentary Committee’s decision to question Twitter for bias. “For the last few years, several serious cases of online harassment surfaced, multiple data breaches occurred, and privacy and data protection became mainstream words, but we didn’t hear anything from this Committee,” said Mishi Choudhary, Managing Partner at Mishi Choudhary & Associates, a law firm that specializes in technology and intellectual property to BuzzFeed News.
Choudhary pointed to the larger issue of of India’s Parliamentary Committees holding closed hearings: members are told to swear an oath and keep secrecy till a report is tabled in the Parliament. “[In such a system], people have no information about their own discourse or data,” she said.
“The public conversation around Twitter’s policies and actions may be distorted by some who have a political agenda,” Crowell wrote in Twitter's blog post, “and this may be particularly acute during election cycles when highly-charged political rhetoric becomes more common.”
Twitter said that it wouldn't be possible for senior officials including its CEO Jack Dorsey to travel to India before Monday, the day the Parliamentary Committee hearing was scheduled. The company issued the following statement on Saturday:
We appreciate and respect the Committee’s focus on the issues of user safety and user rights. We understand the Committee’s interest in these issues and the importance of hearing from multiple stakeholders regarding the implications for users of social media in India. We have indicated that we are willing to participate in such a broad hearing process.
Given the short notice of the hearing, we informed the Committee that it would not be possible for senior officials from Twitter to travel from the United States to appear on Monday. Our CEO, Jack Dorsey, and other senior Twitter executives visited India in recent weeks because it is an important market for Twitter and we value the growing interest in Twitter in India.
We have suggested that we work with the Lok Sabha Secretariat to find mutually agreeable dates for this meeting so that a senior Twitter official can attend. We have also offered representatives from Twitter India to come and answer questions on Monday. We await feedback from the government on both of these matters.
We want to reiterate that we not only have deep respect for India’s parliamentary process and we are also committed to serving the people who use Twitter in the Indian market.