@PMOIndia when political criticism becomes hate speech #twitter #parody #dontSpeak

In part irony and part parody the government has blocked about six twitter accounts which were allegedly “impersonating” our prime minister who is known to be a man of few alphabets. One of the accounts which has been blocked is a parody account [@PM0India] which owes its inspiration to the official account of the Indian prime minister [@PMOIndia]. It is one of the six other twitter accounts which have been reportedly blocked for resembling the PMO’s account. This follows noncompliance on part of Twitter to block/suspend the accounts even after the Prime Ministers Office wrote them a letter two months ago.

First things first. Information on the blocks comes from news reports and not through any official government orders which are made publicly available. This continues the awful trend of blocking such websites (in the instant case a micro-blog hosted on twitter) through secretive administrative processes rather than public gazette notifications. This atmosphere of secrecy in which nothing can be confirmed and everything can be denied makes people presume the worst. This further breeds suspicion of authoritarianism, even if the acts of censorship maybe legitimate by themself. Such actions are hallmarks of a nation of lords rather than of laws.

The suspicion is further heightened due to the peculiar timing of the blocks. They impeccably coincide with the increased government scrutiny on social networking websites due to the violence in Assam and the threats against people from the northeast of the country. The government states that the strife has been in part incited by inflammatory content on social media websites. It has further alleged subsequent requests to take down content have not been properly addressed by the social media companies. The worst offender identified by “government sources” is Twitter.

As a general rule it is usually sensible to discount a conspiracy theory, however precedent is quite another thing. There is precedent which draws suspicion that under the garb of regulation of social media, the real agenda might be political censorship again. Last year there was a news report in the New York Times India Ink Blog that the Minister for Communications and IT, Mr. Kapil Sibal called a meeting of representatives of top social media companies where he purportedly showed a derogatory facebook page of a political leader of the country with a proposal for pre-screening content posted on their respective platforms. Thereafter massive public outcry followed and the Minister denied the pre-screening proposal. The denial was accompanied with a substitution of the facebook page with images of gods and religious figures.

The New York Times stood by its story and court litigations were filed against the social media companies on the basis of derogatory images of gods of various faiths. Very deftly the issue transformed from one of political censorship to regulation of social media and many found it hard to argue for freedom of speech due to the nature of the images themself. Meanwhile a strawman smiled and in the public memory the issue became of an issue of respecting religious sensibilities.

I fear the same pattern is at play against Twitter this time around where an issue of political criticism is being transformed into an issue of hate speech directed against a community/ethnicity. It has also been given a national security tinge with the Tweets being alleged to have originated through some fake accounts operated from across the border.

Though the government will try to potray both under the common banner of inaction by Twitter, these are two distinct categories of speech. The first concerns an issue of political censorship and the second concerns one of hate speech. Most likely the latter is a pretext for the first.

Every violent event provokes reactions online which will often include hate speech. We have to decide how to deal with them, reasonably and rationally. Such instances cannot be used to enforce and put in place censor friendly systems whose primary purpose will be to limit political critisim.

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