Agrawal will be far worse than Dorsey. In a 2010 tweet, Agrawal had said, ‘I am not sure what is more troubling: death of free speech or that “peace in society” is threatened if a book is not banned.’
In a photoshopped meme, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has compared the new Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal with the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Is Agrawal an enemy free speech; does his ascension mean that the social media platform, which is already curbing free speech, is likely to become even more illiberal?
At present, however, Agrawal is being celebrated in India. For we Indians love to wallow in pride. We are proud of Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, of Lata Mangeshkar and Pt. Ravi Shanker, of the Himalayas and the Ganges, of Vedas and Puranas. Nationalistic pride is pervasive as toxic air. Agrawal surely gave us a reason to congratulate ourselves for being such a great country, the country whence come the CEOs of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, and IBM.
But the celebration can’t hide the unvarnished truths about Agrawal, who was chief technical officer with Twitter till he got the top office. In a 2020 interview with MIT Technology Review, he discussed the fight against misinformation on Twitter. “Our role is not to be bound by the First Amendment, but our role is to serve a healthy public conversation and our moves are reflective of things that we believe lead to a healthier public conversation,” Agrawal said.
He was referring to the First Amendment to the American Constitution. It states, “Congress [the American parliament] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This is one of the most important sentences ever written in a state document. For the first time in the history of mankind, a written Constitution restricted the political class from prohibiting free speech. It is as important as Magna Carta. Which is the reason that most pseudo liberals don’t like the First Amendment.
Agrawal too wants to do away with, or at least curtail, the First Amendment.
Jack Dorsey, Agrawal’s predecessor and Twitter founder, was bad enough. He had infamously banned former US President Donald Trump even as some of the worst tyrants and their spokespersons were allowed to use the social media platform.
Agrawal will be far worse than Dorsey. In a 2010 tweet, Agrawal had said, “I am not sure what is more troubling: death of free speech or that ‘peace in society’ is threatened if a book is not banned.” This is a typical stance of India’s politicians and their toadies when they demand a ban on a book, movie, song, etc., that they don’t like; almost invariably it is the concern about “peace in society” that triumphs over freedom of expression.
He is ignorant of the fact that books don’t threaten peace; unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen do.
It is a well-known fact that Twitter has been exercising censorship, especially against Western conservatives. In September last year, the social media platform banned the Chinese virologist Li-Meng Yan’s account for the unpardonable crime of claiming that China had “manufactured” the novel coronavirus in a Wuhan lab.
At the time, the dogma accepted by a large (but unscrupulous) part of the scientific establishment was that the novel coronavirus was of natural origin. The idea was to shield China, Anthony Fauci, and others who had supported the extremely dangerous gain-of-function research. The dogma persisted for a year; during that period, anything other than the natural origin theory was condemned as a vile heresy and punished accordingly.
For the tech tyrants, the mainstream media, public intellectuals, and Beijing-compliant scientists were peddling a simple narrative: all the problems of the world have been caused by Trump. Used to genuflecting to the diktats of Beijing, they couldn’t allow the scientist to air her views because it did not conform to the dogmas they uphold, one of them being that the coronavirus is natural.
Twitter, like other tech giants, suppressed anything that questioned the pro-China natural origin theory in the name of fighting “misinformation”. As it turned out, they were not combating misinformation; they were just helping the world’s most dangerous rogue nation.
Therefore, as it is, Twitter is an enemy of freedom of expression. Under Agrawal, its censoring proclivities will receive several shots of steroids. He will have various pretexts. Banish the cartoons that some religious groups object to and threaten to indulge in violence. Suppress a viewpoint because it sounds “weird” to apologists of Beijing as Dr Yan’s thesis did last year, though now it doesn’t sound as weird.
In short, Agrawal is bad news for free speech.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.