Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

Trump censors Twitter; Should Modi’s India do likewise?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

It’s happening in the United States but it concerns all of us. President Donald Trump has passed an executive order to “censor” Social Media. If it passes the legal test, the current immunity enjoyed by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp etc would be stripped bare. If they lose freedom, what chances you and I have on our “freedom of expression?”

A background is in order. Trump showed his contempt for mail-in ballots in case the due November 3 Presidential election keeps the voters indoors due to Corona Virus. He tweeted: “no way…mail-in ballots will be anything less than substantial fraudulent. Mail boxes will be robbed, ballots will be robbed, ballots will be forged and even illegally printed out and fraudulently signed…” He followed it up with another tweet, mentioning it would be “rigged elections.” Twitter censored it, stating “Trump makes unsubstantiated claim that mail-in ballots will lead to voter fraud.”

Trump was livid. He termed it selective censorship. Twitter, the president said, was making “editorial decisions.” In essence, it doesn’t make Social Media a neutral platform. They are publishers, like other media houses and must come under regulations.

“They’ve had unchecked power to censure, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences…We cannot allow that to happen…in these moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform – they become an editor with a viewpoint,” said Trump, adding his comments don’t exclude other media platforms such as Facebook, Google etc.

Is Trump wrong? Probably not. What Twitter censors by Trump would look extremely scandalous if Twitter was owned, say by a Chinese company. How can Social Media censor views on local election process, that too of the US president, when there are legitimate grounds for his comments? The New York Times in 2012 had reported “fraud” in postal ballots. Washington Post is on record for stating that “no one questions the mail-in ballots have much higher rates of not being counted.” Twitter’s action does curtail “freedom of expression”. Social Media today has the power to shape truth in the image they want. Democracy won’t have the diversity it preens upon.

Trump’s order aims to turn Social Media platforms as regular publishers. It means they could be bogged down by lawsuits. It could, and should, flag down racial and religious bigotry; terrorism and pornography etc. But Social Media giants ought to have no role in censoring people’s opinion. More so, political opinions.  Trump has accused twitter of “doing nothing about all of the lies and propaganda being put out by China or the Radical Left Democratic Party (i.e. his rival Joe Biden).”

It could well be that Trump’s executive order falls flat on legal count. But Social Media giants can’t have unbridled freedom. They are being hauled up, for instance, in Europe and Australia; the latter quite close to labelling Social Media platforms as media outlets. They derive commercial benefits on disseminating news content. Their usage of people’s data has long been in regulators’ crosshairs. There are wide-ranging antitrust probes against them. They are no innocent bystanders.

Twitter presently is asserting its power to “curate” the content So, tomorrow, if the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi was to say that Congress can’t hold a candle to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); or that Mamata Banerjee is supporting Jihadi elements in Bengal; or that he is worried about attacks on Sadhus; or that he is surprised to learn that below Babri Masjid remains of a temple has been found, could Twitter “fact-checks” and blocks those tweets? Is Twitter now the new “arbiters” of truth? And if they think they are, shouldn’t they be deemed as media houses and suitably brought under legal purview? Who is to say they are being neutral and not biased?

In the Indian context, just imagine the size we’re talking about. Between Facebook and WhatsApp, there are 700 million users. YouTube has 265 million users: twitter 14 million. It’s an enormous power to wield if the Social Media giants choose to be the arbiters of truth as they see it. If tomorrow, the Indian government follows Trump’s example, how would we react? In the name of “freedom of internet” would we be helping or breaking the India we know?

 

Smriti Irani in McDonald: We’re loving it

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Smriti Irani is a formidable opponent. You don’t need Rahul Gandhi to tell you. Anybody who has engaged her in the Parliament, TV debates or open public forum would swear in the name of Allah. Barkha Dutt won’t deny it nor would Rahul Kanwal. You could also ask Rashid Alvi (who? Well Congress). Or a collective opposition who were not safe even in their trenches as she rumbled in Parliament a few seasons ago.

In the above instances, Ms. Irani was dealing with hardened ideologues and masters of deception. Politicians who cook facts quicker than maggi noodles. Journalists, those cloak-and-dagger assassins, without a trace of blood on their pen. Yet they froze like rats do when bathed in car flashlights. You don’t test the depth of a river with both feet, do you.

This is a woman who is just not a prima donna in front of cameras. Away from limelight, she walked hundreds of miles in countless visits to uproot the Prophet of Amethi. Door to door, ear to ear, shoulder to shoulder, in grime and dust, scorching sun or raining heavens, lending ears and shoulders in equal measure or corner of her saree to sponge the tears of wailing widows.

When Ms. Irani speaks, it’s difficult to say if her Hindi is better than her English. When words in chaste Urdu are effortlessly slipped in. There is a flow and rhythm, snarl and contempt all constructing a perfect mosaic. You are confronted with a holistic picture, its’ edges secured in the frame of clinching facts. When she performs, it’s often better than her words. It makes material difference to the recipients; and not just aesthetics to its listeners.

We have no evidence where Ms. Irani cut her teeth in the unforgiving world of public gaze. To an unknown, a TV actress would be a guess too wide off the mark.  It’s like somebody telling you he outran an audi. That she was an Alice looking for her Wonderland in a Miss India contest once. That she also once donned checked blue shirt and trousers with apron to greet us in a McDonald cap in Bandra, Mumbai.

Yes, she worked in McDonald once. Clearing tables and sweeping floors. All for a princely Rs 1,800 a month. We wouldn’t have known it but for a textile council securing her Provident Fund employee certificate from McDonald and toying with the idea if its’ auction could come to the aid of a group of women artisans. McDonald was a refuge when she was still nursing her rejection for an air hostess job. She was told she “lacked a good personality.”

This is a woman who has made her own destiny. She prised open the door of TV soap operas and her main lead in “Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi”(Because a mother-in-law was also a daughter-in-law once) is a TV legend like few have been. Apparently her talent was no less than her looks for she was deemed best actress for five straight years. She was a female superstar, if ever there was one, of the small screen.

Maybe stardom helped Ms. Irani in political arena. Maybe not for she was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in her childhood itself even though she joined BJP formally in 2003 only. Her grandfather, a member of the RSS, must have been an early influence. As would have been her mother, Shibani Bagchi (a Bengali) who was a Jana Sangh member. Her father, Ajay Kumar Malhotra, hasn’t anything political known about him. Thus there are no rough edges here: She is an ideologically rounded person. She is married and has three kids and pictures of a happy family are aplenty.

Leaping through the ranks, Ms. Irani became national secretary of BJP in 2010. The same year she was heading her party’s women’s wing: BJP Mahila Morcha. Next year, she entered Rajya Sabha as a parliamentarian from Gujarat. Early in her career, she took on Kapil Sibal of Congress in the 2004 General Elections from Chandni Chowk constituency in the Capital.

In Narendra Modi’s two cabinets, Ms. Irani has held various portfolios. An educated guess is that she has moved between portfolios, particularly in the case of Information and Broadcasting Ministry, because of her combative working style. She is eminently capable of ruffling a few feathers. We all know Narendra Modi would rather have his team concentrate on developmental work than lock horns in public with dimwits. She has relatively quiet and non-controversial ministries of Women and Child Development and Textiles in her latest brief. But all of us know, Ms. Irani would dominate the coming decades of Indian politics. In defeating Rahul Gandhi, she probably has caused the biggest upset not just of 2019 Polls but in an entire generation. Just 43, here is a woman who is a role model for not just millions in her gender but many more in rather ruthless, largely men’s arena called politics.