Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on September 5, 2018. Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

Hundreds of Twitter users started a mass exodus from the social media platform on a day when its third-quarter earnings revealed a major fall in revenues.

The impact of lower revenues led to a sharp 20% fall in share prices, as company officials struggled to explain what had gone wrong.

But the bad news for the social media platform did not end. In India, which hosts a large number of its users, people were beginning to sign off. It started with Twitter banning a prominent lawyer and designated senior advocate Sanjay Hegde from the platform.

He was banned because he had posted an iconic anti-Nazi image as his banner picture above his profile on the microblogging site.

Twitter’s filters failed to distinguish the image from the usual Nazi images and sent him a notice that he was in violation of the platform’s community standards.

When Hegde appealed his case, Twitter continued to maintain that the image he had posted as his banner image on his Twitter profile was unacceptable. When Hegde refused to take down the picture, Twitter deleted his account.

Free speech entanglement

But Hegde was not ready to accept Twitter’s decision. He sent them a legal notice and a separate representation to the union minister for Information Technology, who also happens to be a senior lawyer.

“Yes, I do plan to take them to court. The jurisdiction or the manner is to be decided later,” Hegde told Asia Times. “The image I had is a proverbial poster for resistance historically and globally. It shows how one person can stand up to majoritarianism.

“It seems Twitter’s filters saw this as an image of the Nazis and are refusing to accept what it really means,” he said.

August Landmesser’s iconic image of resistance against the Nazis led to Twitter banning advocate Sanjay Hegde who had posted it on the social media site. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The image is of a German national, August Landmesser, and is supposed to have been taken on June 13, 1936. Landmesser was married to a Jewish woman that led to his dismissal from the Nazi party and incarceration.

However, Twitter officials argued that the image could be easily mistaken as a symbol of support for the Nazis. “Banner images appear on the surface of the Twitter experience, including the search results. There is limited context visible when other users see profile information and so the context gets lost,” a company official said.

However, the fact that an iconic image recognized globally as a symbol of resistance with Landmesser circled in the image did not cut much ice with Twitter. Once Hegde’s account was deleted, other users began to search for alternatives.

Kannan Gopinath, who took premature voluntary retirement from government service to protest against India’s policy on Kashmir, pointed towards Mastodon, a new and federated social media site that was built on open-source software a few years ago. Mastodon claims to have about 2.2 million users compared with Twitter’s 300 million.

Online abuse

However, for many, this has become an issue of free speech and Twitter’s apparently arbitrary filters.

Two weeks ago, users based in India, and specifically Mumbai, started a trend asking for Muslims and their businesses to be banned in India. The trend sent Twitter scrambling, as they could not stop it and the numbers grew exponentially.

“It was clear that troll farms had been paid off to push this trend,” a senior government official told Asia Times. “However, since this was a private platform, we could not do anything.” Twitter company officials admit they failed to take action.

“As outlined in our hateful conduct policy, we do not tolerate the abuse or harassment of people on the basis of religion. As per our help center, there are rules for trends and we have prevented this hashtag from trending as it is in violation of the Twitter Rules”, Pallavi Walia told Asia Times in response to a detailed set of queries.

However, company officials privately acknowledged that the trend continued for a few days before it could be taken down.

But Muslims are not the only people who have been targeted by users in India. Dilp Mandal, a senior journalist, was also temporarily suspended from Twitter.

He alleged that users who were from oppressed castes from India were being targeted on the platform for speaking up. India, which used to have a rigid caste system, forced many into marginalized communities who were then ordained as “untouchable.” While independent India banned the practice, systemic discrimination against these castes continued.

But the failure of Twitter’s filters to either limit the abuse or mis-identify content such as Hegde’s case shows there are deeper technology issues that are leading to financial losses.

Ironically, Twitter officials now blame the fall in third quarter earnings to their failure to target their advertisements.

“In Q3 we discovered, and took steps to remediate, bugs that primarily affected our legacy Mobile Application Promotion (MAP) product, impacting our ability to target ads and share data with measurement and ad partners,” Twitter said in a letter to its shareholders.

Ned Segal, its chief financial officer (CFO), also admitted they were passing on data to investors “which we had not intended to,” according to a CNBC report on the earnings call by Segal.

Meanwhile, on October 30, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey announced that the platform was banning political advertisements. While social media rival and technology behemoth Facebook is also under fire globally, Dorsey’s announcement led to mixed reactions.

Many wondered how this would impact the company’s future revenues with the US elections coming up next year. For now, Twitter is not only staring at falling revenue, but also losing users in key markets like India.

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