How Twitter has miserably failed to tame parody accounts in India

Parody accounts on Twitter were meant to post fun-laden tweets to delight the followers. Instead, they have become fake news factories, misleading the users on burning issues in India.

Twitter accounts that pose as another person, brand or organisation in a confusing or deceptive manner have seen a meteoric rise in India, tweeting misinformation to change the narrative of the day.

No one is spared in this misinformation war, be it politicians, mediapersons, celebrities and common Twitter users, who fall to the trap and retweet or file stories basis those parody/fake handles that have mushroomed on Twitter and the algorithms have miserably failed to track and flag/remove those.

In fact, India is such a big market for Twitter and it ought to have given far more attention to compliances under the Indian law, but it appears that there is a lot of gap between what the law wants Twitter to do versus what Twitter actually does.

Today, Twitter is infested with fake and parody accounts in India. Most of these accounts are being used for the purposes of targeting a particular person or for the purposes of forwarding or perpetuating a particular philosophy, political, religious or otherwise.

“Most of the fake accounts are targeting individuals, often hitting them below their belt so as to prejudicially impact the reputation, goodwill, standing or repute in society,” Pavan Duggal, one of the nation’s top cyber law experts and a seasoned Supreme Court lawyer, told IANS.

The time has been such that intermediaries like Twitter now need to revise and review their existing strategies.

“Today, the basic presumption has to be that if somebody is complaining of a parody or fake account, there is a legitimate legal injury or damage that is being caused to the said aggrieved person. Service providers today are engaging in activities which lead to double jeopardy or doubly harassing the affected party who already has been impacted by the fake or parody accounts,” Duggal lamented.

An aggrieved person should not be asked to go through another round of harassment in the hands of social media service providers by exposing them to bureaucratic approach.

Twitter says its users are allowed to create parody, newsfeed, commentary or fan accounts. The company says it reviews impersonation claims upon receipt of a valid impersonation report and does not “actively monitor users’ content”.

According to Virag Gupta, a lawyer who is arguing the case before Delhi High Court for disclosure of designated officers details of Twitter and foreign social media companies in India, the whole exercise to take action on parody accounts by twitter is flawed.

“It is ironic to see that Twitter asks the original account holder to furnish a copy of the FIR against the parody account impersonating him/her, and asks for their credentials rather than acting on the parody accounts that even have the verified Blue Tick. This is nothing but travesty of the Indian law caused by intermediaries like Twitter,” Gupta told IANS.

Twitter impersonation policy reads that if you are the impersonated party or an authorised representative, “you can file an impersonation report. If you believe an account is impersonating somebody else, you can flag it as a bystander by reporting directly from the account’s profile”.

However, there is no action against several such parody/fake accounts that have left the fun part behind, and are now actively participating in spreading the misinformation.

Anoop Mishra, one of the nation’s leading social media experts, says that instead of using their own verified accounts, several political leaders are now using fake, parody accounts and hire celebrities or social media influencers to target millions of users.

“At times, we treat these accounts as Bots but one should not get confused between Bot accounts and parody accounts. Parody accounts are generally created by real humans with a clear objective to attract people, gain followers, and earn money whereas Bots are system-generated accounts to increase followers and likes,” explained Mishra.

Many political parties via their PR agencies are now hiring parody account holders on a monthly/yearly basis or pay per tweet/post basis to drive their objectives.

Duggal says that most of these social media platforms including Twitter don’t have well thought-over policies or strategies on how to specifically deal with the peculiar challenges that parody accounts or fake accounts actually bring forward in the Indian context.

“Further, the law has also failed Indian citizens in this regard. The law has not mandated the adoption of a user-friendly approach by service providers, while dealing with affected persons in the context of their reporting of parody accounts or false accounts,” he noted.

The onus is on the government to come up with specific guidelines on what the social media platforms need to do in the context of parody accounts or false accounts, experts stressed.

“In today’s context, the time frame of 6-12 hours needs to be mandated for the maximum time for service providers to act effectively on any such complaint for curbing of parody accounts or false accounts that are disseminating fake news,” Duggal told IANS.

Indian media often use particular fake outputs from these parody accounts for further dissemination.

“In this context, the onus lies on the government to come up with stringent rules and regulations under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and quickly start implementing them in right earnestness, in order to start granting effective remedy to affected persons who become affected victims of these parody accounts or fake news,” Duggal added.