Centre for Internet & Society

Twitter claimed that it had ‘prevented’ the Hashtag while it had not.

The blog post by Puja Bhattacharjee was published in News Central on October 21, 2019. Pranesh Prakash was quoted in it.

In 2009, Twitter took down a trending hashtag. The hashtag in question started in South Africa and had the word “darkie” in it. That word is not a slur in South Africa, but it was used as a slur against the African Americans community in the USA. On receiving complaints, Twitter immediately removed that from trending topics though it was a clash of meanings between two different places.

On Sunday evening, a hashtag of more insidious nature was trending in India. The hashtag #मुस्लिमो_का_संपूर्ण_बहिष्कार, translated literally means “Total boycott of Muslims”. The incident is ominous given rising apprehension across the world that India is now in the grip of a violent form of Hindu Nationalism. The tweets in support of the hashtags were mostly from right-wing accounts, some of which not only called for the boycott of Muslims but also celebrated the persecution of Uighurs in China.

Speaking to NewsCentral24x7.com, a Twitter spokesperson claimed that it had ‘prevented’ the hashtag from trending: “There are Rules for trends and we have prevented this hashtag from trending as it is in violation of the Twitter Rules”. (Full statement at the end of the story)

However this was patently false since many users pointed out that the hashtag continued to trend even after Twitter’s statement. In Delhi, the hashtag continues to trend at number one. More disturbingly, as reported by The Wire some of the accounts tweeting in support of the hashtags are followed by the Prime Minister and several cabinet ministers.

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Pranesh Prakash, co-founder of Centre for Internet and Society,  says that Twitter usually does not ban a hashtag. “They can remove it from trending and if people use it offensively, then they can ban that person or that tweet…. Twitter should put out a statement apologizing for and condemning this given they condemn white nationalists in the US.” he says.

The hashtag was started ostensibly in retaliation of the murder Kamlesh Tiwari, 45, the president of the Hindu Samaj Party. Over the weekend, the police arrested five people in connection to the murder.

However, Kamlesh Tiwari in his last Facebook Live video before his murder protested the removal of his security by the Yogi Adityanath government and trying to hatch a conspiracy to kill him. His mother echoed his sentiments and has come out to say that there is no communal angle to his murder.

The matter once again raises questions about the responsibility  Big-Tech platforms like Twitter need to discharge in monitoring and combating hate speech. Many organizations in the USA, UK and Australia such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Women, Action and the Media (WAM!), Online Hate Prevention Institute and Sentinel Groups for Genocide Prevention have become increasingly invested in combating hate speech online by targeting Internet intermediaries and asking them to take greater responsibility in moderating content, in addition to raising awareness among users.

An interactive map showing the trends of the hashtag from October 20 evening till October 21 morning in the sub-continent.

However, in India, the government’s proposed changes to Section 79 of the IT Act for restricting hate speech has led to fears of widespread censorship. The Internet Freedom Foundation published a comprehensive blog on why such an amendment is undesirable.

In a report released in 2017, the Law Commission of India recommended broadening the existing provisions of hate speech to include other criteria that are based on their gender and sexuality.

“It does not look at underlying reforms. Like understanding the link to violence and whether it should only be a provision which should apply to members of a minority community -linguistic, caste, religion,” says Apar Gupta, executive director, Internet Freedom Foundation

He says if lawmakers are unwilling to substantively tinker with definitions in a very real and substantial way, they should come up with procedural safeguards instead.

Twitter or any social media company has two levels of obligation – its own obligations towards its users which is under the terms of service contract under which it can proactively take down a speech if there is a violation of those standards. “They have a degree of discretion to do it as well. This is where most of the content takedowns happen which also results in a certain amount of criticism because they lack the consistency desired by people,” says Gupta.

The second level of compliance is when a legal notice is sent by a judicial or executive authority. If they do not comply, their online immunity from liability for the content posted by the user can be removed and they can be prosecuted as an accessory or abettor to the content published on their platform. “Twitter can block the hashtag but what we are looking for is a much more credible law enforcement response based on the content of each tweet,” Gupta adds.

In her book, HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship by Nadine Strossen, the author argues that that censorial measures are ineffective and do not promote equality. Instead, Strossen, recommends forceful counter-speech and activism.

“In 2016, a report was issued about counterspeech on Twitter, coauthored by a group of scholars from the United States and Canada. The report, which included the first review of the “small body” of existing research about online counterspeech, concluded that hateful and other “extremist” speech was most effectively “undermined” by counterspeech rather than by removing it,” she writes.

Editors Note: The hashtag discussed above is absolutely horrifying and historically widespread calls for ‘boycott’ have preceded genocide. While on one hand we cannot allow hate speech to become an excuse for governments to curb non-harmful, legal speech, the censor or counter debate cannot be allowed to become a veil for big-tech to wash its hands off the matter. There is now significant reportage which shows that hate speech essentially benefits social media platforms and therefore they are unwilling to curb it. In this specific case the double standards twitter has displayed in being prompt in one country while unresponsive in other is also a very disturbing aspect.

Full statement by Twitter:

“At Twitter our singular goal is to improve the health of the public conversation, including ensuring the safety of people who use our service. As outlined in our Hateful Conduct Policy, we do not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion. As per our Help Center, there are Rules for trends and we have prevented this hashtag from trending as it is in violation of the Twitter Rules. If people on Twitter see something that violates the Twitter Rules, the most important thing they can do is report it, by clicking the drop down arrow at the top of the Tweet and selecting “Report Tweet.”