VIEWPOINT

Twitter is becoming a place of governance rather than just a medium of communication.

 12/01/2017 5:20 PM IST | Updated 13 hours ago

 

 

 

The US is OK with burning the flag. The Union Jack can appear on "comfortable mesh breathable underwear briefs" or "bulge enhancing roomy pouch boxers" but India has a different relationship with its flag. And that's just the way it is.

Thus when a user spotted doormats with Indian tri-colour being sold on Amazon Canada and was upset, it's not surprising that Swaraj was upset as well.

What's astonishing is what followed. Swaraj went on Twitter and asked the Indian High Commission to "take this up on Amazon at the highest level". She demanded "Amazon must tender unconditional apology". And then she threatened "If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the visas issued earlier." All of this happened on Twitter.

Amazon must tender unconditional apology. They must withdraw all products insulting our national flag immediately. /1

 

If this is not done forthwith, we will not grant Indian Visa to any Amazon official. We will also rescind the Visas issued earlier.

 

 

Think about it. A cabinet minister talked to her own Indian High Commission and threatened an MNC with visa sanctions on Twitter. And it was regarded as something quite unexceptional, just another day in the life of Sushma Swaraj, Twitter warrior.

Swaraj is one of the most active ministers on Twitter. She responds to requests for help from Indians stranded overseas. She is so pro-active, she had to dress down a Pune-based techie who tweeted at her requesting a transfer of his wife from the Jhansi railway division so they could live together in marital bliss.

"If you or your wife were from my Ministry and such a request for transfer was made on Twitter, I would have sent a suspension order by now," tweeted a ticked-off Swaraj.

It's funny that she is upset by him making the request on Twitter because in large part it happened because she herself is so available and so responsive on Twitter.

Twitter's great plus point is that it can be a direct unmediated line to the powerful. That also makes it a double-edged sword as sooner or later a techie decides his wife's transfer request is just as important as the plight of an Indian stranded without his passport in a war zone.

To be fair to the techie, the great democratizing touch of Twitter has blurred the distinction between the appropriate and the inappropriate. The adage goes — even a cat may look at a king. Its 21st century corollary is — anyone may tweet at a cabinet minister, and for whatever reason.

Twitter's great plus point is that it can be a direct unmediated line to the powerful. That also makes it a double-edged sword as sooner or later a techie decides his wife's transfer request is just as important as the plight of an Indian stranded without his passport in a war zone. Or the man who tweeted at Swaraj asking her to help push Samsung into replacing his defective refrigerator.

The problem is, as the recent Amazon showdown demonstrated, Twitter is becoming a place of governance rather than just a medium of communication.

The problem is not that Swaraj is so responsive to requests from Indian citizens via Twitter. That's wonderful. Who can argue with a responsive minister? The problem is, as the recent Amazon showdown demonstrated, Twitter is becoming a place of governance rather than just a medium of communication.

Swaraj could have easily called the High Commission, she could have instructed them to get in touch with Amazon Canada. But the public performance of a minister getting things done is almost as important as the minister just getting things done.

What's fascinating is that Swaraj as the minister for external affairs is often overshadowed by the globetrotting Prime Minister. "She has given much of the limelight to her Prime Minister, but has worked assiduously behind the scenes," writes Ashok Malik. But on Twitter she can get all the limelight she wants. She is minister who can respond, as Malik says, to the "proverbial 3AM tweet".

It's worked wonders for her image. "@SushmaSwaraj is a warrior," tweets Tarun Vijay of the BJP. "Amazon will hv to regret. No other way for these firangs."

Why are people in dire need of a passport or visa forced to go to the very top to get their needs addressed? Swaraj might be setting the bar of a responsive minister high tweet by tweet, but it also reveals a process that does not work and a helpdesk that cannot help.

But here's the troubling issue. Why are people in dire need of a passport or visa forced to go to the very top to get their needs addressed? Swaraj might be setting the bar of a responsive minister high tweet by tweet, but it also reveals a process that does not work and a helpdesk that cannot help.

This rush to tweet has resulted occasionally in some red faces. Swaraj herself rushed to condole the death of Mahasweta Devi and in her fulsome tweet mentioned two books that left a "lasting impression" on her life. They turned out to be written by Ashapurna Devi. More embarrassingly her colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad goofed up on his arithmetic when he Twitter-bragged that "digital farmers of #DigitalIndia" were reaping the benefits of selling produce online by the bushel – 1.13 lakh tonnes worth Rs 6.13 lakh crore which translated to Rs 54247.78 per kilo leading Twitterati to wonder if the government was selling opium.

It's embarrassing but not insidious, just a byproduct of the rush to tweet without verifying the facts. What's far more insidious is how Twitter itself has been deployed not just as microblogging but as mega-warfare. Arun Shourie in an interview with Swati Chaturvedi says that when the Prime Minister follows trolls online it sends a chilling message. "I am following it. You are following, then you are encouraging it, saying 'Bhaiyya main dekh raha hoon tum kitni galiyan dal rahe ho' (Boys, I'm watching, to see how many abuses you come up with). Next I hear he had a reception for them. You are receiving the same fellows in the PM's official residence."

Of course a Swaraj responding to the 3AM tweet for help is more productive than a Donald Trump lashing out at all and sundry at 3 AM on Twitter. The US election showed clearly how Twitter could be used to bypass every gatekeeper and media outlet and directly rally the base. In hindsight, Trump's fulminations on Twitter just added to his appeal among many of his supporters, bolstered his image as a man not bound by politically correct presidential niceties.

As Peter Thiel, one of his Silicon Valley backers, tells the New York Times, "I think the crazy thing is at a place like Twitter, they were all working for Trump this whole year even though they thought they were working for Sanders."

Trump might chortle. What the Times calls his "wildly lunging with his Twitter rapier" worked wonders for him. And even now as #GoldenShowers and MerylStreep dominate the Twitter wars, egged on by Trump himself, they serve to distract the public from far more important policy decisions and controversial nominations unfolding in America. The Twitter hashtag becomes the next shiny thing that the media pursues.

It all points to a brave new world where in 140 characters or less, we are setting agendas, governing, making diplomatic manoeuvre, bullying those who ask uncomfortable questions and settling scores. It's a disconcerting reality.

"A Twitter war is not a real war," says Peter Thiel dismissively when asked about Trump's intemperate and provocative tweets. But how long before it becomes real?

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