DUE to the Covid-19 pandemic situation, we are witnessing a rise in twitter governance in India. Many netizens are seeking the assistance of the politicians and the authorities for obtaining essential goods and services like ration, curfew passes, special permissions, health facilities etc. via twitter platform. We have also seen the political leaders, Chief Ministers and Ministers appealing to their counterparts in other states to take care of the migrant labourers from their states using the twitter.
Twitter has proved to be very effective in times like these, as it could eliminate all the middlemen and cumbersome procedure in approaching the authorities who can help and as the requests are disposed of in real-time. Although using twitter for governance is very innovative and productive, there is a need to evaluate whether the current usage of twitter for governance-related activities has enough safeguards keeping in mind our democratic setup, constitutional scheme and fundamental rights.
The Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Government of India in the year 2012 has come up with ‘Framework & Guidelines for Use of Social Media for Government Organisations.’ Like the case of many guidelines in India, even these are not followed by most of the official twitter handles of the Government. The implementation of guidelines with respect to responsiveness, data management, accountability is abysmal to non-existent. The real concern lies in the situations where the Politicians (mostly ministers and people’s representatives) and high-level officials use their personal twitter handles to act upon the requests of the citizens. Former Minister for External Affairs Late Sushma Swaraj and Telangana’s IT Minister Rama Rao are notable figures in this category. When officials use their personal accounts to respond to the requests of the citizens, one cannot demand accountability from them. It should be noted that, though citizens tag the personal accounts of the authorities in their tweets, impliedly they petition the concerned office or the Government they represent. Citizens tweet to these individuals with a belief that they have authority to act on behalf of the state.
In realism, when these authorities dispose of the requests made by the citizens, they act like the State. When they act in the social media behind the veil of the State and because they have opened the gates of their accounts to perform governance-related activities, the scrutiny of the requests or grievances from the citizens should be done with the same standards followed by the Government or its agencies. This establishes the citizen’s right to make a representation and the authority’s duty to consider such a request in a manner worthy of a State that follows due process. That means, they must be accountable and non-discriminatory in treating all the requests or grievances made by the citizens. But currently, as they are operating through their personal accounts, they are not bound to be accountable and non-discriminatory, and it is also not humanly possible for them to consider all the requests or petitions with state standard accountability. It may happen that few requests are ignored and a few grievances or complaints not to their liking are not even considered. As a solution to this, the usage of personal accounts for governance should be reduced or in cases where they want to use personal accounts, a standard protocol should be set up in dealing with the petitions made in social media, where the principles of fairness, equity and non-discrimination are embedded into it.
It is unfortunate that there is no official protocol set up regarding how to respond to a request or grievance made through social media platforms. Netizens usually face uncertainty with regards to whether the authority will respond, or the time taken for a reply or response. Because of this, though there is right to make a representation, there is no legitimate expectation to receive a reply. As there is no guarantee that, the authorities will respond to the tweet, the occasional act of taking notice of the tweet and responding to it is viewed as a praiseworthy event by the people. While responding to their tweet if they have also solved their problem or acted positively, there are no bounds to their joy. Amidst these requests and disposals, which is a matter of right of citizens has become a wonderment.
The narrative of rights- a citizen’s right to seek the assistance from his/her Government, right to make a representation or raise a grievance is lost to the world’s perception of benevolence, mercy and kind gesture on the part of the authorities to respond to the tweets. This problem is imminent in cases where the officials use their twitter handles to build their popularity and charisma. It also raises important questions on the condition of our governance, if the high-ranking officials and ministers had to attend to ordinary requests like passport queries and curfew passes, ignoring the principle of subsidiarity.
While using the Twitter-like platforms for government-related activities, there are major concerns regarding data management and protecting the privacy of the citizens. When citizens make requests to the authorities, they unintentionally and voluntarily share what the Information Technology Act and rules under it refer to as ‘personal information’ or ‘sensitive personal data or information.’ This is especially seen in cases where the citizens seek financial assistance from the state for their medical treatment.
In a desperate attempt to secure financial assistance and to prove the genuinity of their request, they share on twitter all the reports related to diagnosis, prescriptions and certificates, which law classifies as sensitive personal information. This happens because of not using ‘Direct Message’ option efficiently and as there is no proper discouragement from authorities to share the personal data. In fact, the lockdown due to COVID pandemic brought into limelight new types of requests on twitter platform. A citizen whose relative has passed away in another state has requested help in travelling to another state. In doing so, he has posted the photograph of the dead body. In a world where privacy is inviolable, a third party should not see this kind of information. Yet this happens because of a lack of awareness about privacy and absence of proper infrastructure and guidelines to deal with such requests as a result of informalism.
India has a long way to become a robust twitter governance state. A change in the attitude of the authorities from ‘doing a favour by responding’ to ‘a duty to respond’ is crucial in achieving such a state. The principles of fairness, due process and natural justice should be adopted into the protocols governing the official handles. Already, the state Government of Karnataka, through its official twitter account (Janasnehi) has set new benchmarks in handling the citizens’ requests and grievances. Let our social media be no exception to good governance.
(The author is a postgraduate student of law at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)
Note: This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own.