By Karan Thapar
Let me start with an admission. I don’t use Twitter and often joke that those who do are twits. Indeed, for me, the term hashtag used to be rather misleading. So I have to say I’m stunned by the way politicians have taken to Twitter and made it their favourite form of messaging.
It’s not just our own Narendra Modi or Donald Trump that prefer to encapsulate their messages in the 140 characters Twitter permits, it seems leading politicians all over the world do the same. These days politicians don’t speak. They prefer to tweet, even if what they produce is not the sweet sound of a little bird.
A recent article by the Pakistani expert on terror, Ahmed Rashid, says Nawaz Sharif and the country’s Army Chief have become dab hands at Twitter. He calls their rule “governance by tweet”.
Now, there’s no doubt the political use of Twitter has advantages. It permits instant and focused comment, almost in real time, on a range of events. These can be accessed without any cost, at any time, by anyone who has a smartphone. The social media universe that emerges is interactive and permits a direct response.
However, the disadvantages are not just greater but hardly talked about. Let me quote from Ahmed Rashid’s conclusion about the twitterization of governance in Pakistan: “The unprecedented use of Twitter has led to a major threat to media freedom in Pakistan. It bars journalists from asking any questions, provides no transparency and encourages state censorship on issues the government does not want to discuss … generals and politicians have ceased to give press conferences or briefings. Now 140 characters is presumed to convey enough information which the media has no choice but to be satisfied with.”
Think about this carefully because it could happen in India too. We’re not quite there as yet but I fear we’re heading in that direction even if unwittingly.
Our Prime Minister doesn’t hold press conferences and only gives interviews to journalists he trusts. On Twitter, however, he’s not just prompt but often prolific. Yet this means we only get to know what he has to say within the limits of 140 characters.
For all that Mr. Modi claims to believe in it, twitterization leads to a lack of transparency. Each time a politician opts to tweet, rather than answer questions from journalists, he’s limiting his accountability to the media and, therefore, the wider public. Even if at a press conference questions are deliberately not answered they are at least asked and the evasion noted. But you can’t really ask questions on a Twitter feed. That means you can’t cross-question. Hence politicians can get away with whatever they assert no matter how silly or downright wrong.
Let me make a prediction: the more politicians tweet the less they will be available for questioning and the greater the consequent impact on the rights of the press. Depending on how far this goes it will diminish press freedom.
Of course, we want to know what our politicians think and tweets make that easy. However, I would say more often we want to question what they think. But the Twitterization of their views prevents that. Knowing is, of course, important but questioning could often be critical. When that’s denied the tweet you receive could end up treating you like a twit.