When a Tweet met with a roar

Thursday, Nov 29, 2018, 04:20 AM | Source: Pursuit

Hari Bapuji, Snehanjali Chrispal

It took nothing more than a tweet for a virtual war to start online and ensnare in its fold Twitter – the company itself.

What started the online hostility was a group photo featuring Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey with several women journalists and activists. In this photo was a poster, held by Mr Dorsey, which read “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”.

The photo that caused controversy in India with Twitter’s CEO holding a poster that reads “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. Picture: Twitter

As soon as this photo was tweeted by one of the participants, critics pounced on Jack Dorsey and Twitter. They demanded an apology, threatened prosecution, called for the boycott of Twitter and even contemplated developing a rival Indian platform, just like China’s Weibo.

It’s important to note here that India is the most important market for Twitter, with around 8 million users and numbers growing at five times the global average.

Not surprisingly, Mr Dorsey had high expectations from his visit to India “after a lifetime of wanting to experience it”.

While he was there, he met with a cross section of people – including Prime Minister Modi (an avid Twitter user with 44.5 million followers), the Dalai Lama, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and the students of Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.

Near the end of his visit, Mr Dorsey met with a group of journalists and activists to learn about the abuse, including threats of rape, that women and other liberal voices face on Twitter.

It was an off-the-record conversation that meant these women could share their views and thoughts candidly.

The vitriol on Twitter in India can be so vicious that Shehla Rashid (a student leader with more than 500,000 followers) recently quit the platform saying the “toxicity and negativity” was unbearable and that her leaving was an “SOS call to Twitter”.

So, getting India right is important for Twitter.

Twitter later attempted to clarify that Jack Dorsey was holding the poster. Picture: Twitter

As this virtual war raged, Twitter clarified that Mr Dorsey was merely holding a poster that he had received as a gift from one activist and went onto say that this didn’t represent Twitter’s official position. This was soon followed by an apology from the legal head of Twitter, Vijaya Gadde, for “failing to be an impartial platform for all.”

But nothing was going to quell this online storm and now the liberal voices criticised the backtracking by Twitter. However, in order to understand this Twitter tempest, we first need to understand the age-old caste system in the Indian subcontinent.

The controversy of the “Brahmanical Patriarchy”

The caste system, generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old, placed individuals in a hierarchy according to birth and determined their occupation – Brahmins (priests and advisors) were at the top and Dalits (formerly untouchables, tasked with cleaning and disposing of the dead) were at the bottom, with the rest in between.

The caste system imposes guidelines for conduct and determines people’s relationships, including marriage. As the priests and scholars in the system, Brahmins were the primary enforcers of the caste system.

Although outlawed for more than 60 years, the caste system is still alive and kicking in India. Untouchability may be a criminal offence, but it continues to be practiced. And Dalits, who make up nearly 300 million of the country’s population, continue to bear the brunt of the caste system as they seek some semblance of equality.

On top of this, many women across caste lines face oppression by men. As women are considered the gateways to maintain purity of castes, they are socialised to follow the patriarchal norms with respect to what they can do, what they can wear, who they can interact with and how, and who they can marry.

The caste system, which was outlawed more than 60 years ago, imposes guidelines for conduct. Picture: Getty Images

And women who resist the patriarchal notions face serious reprisals.

Dalit women face the worst of the subjugation and are considered to be doubly oppressed, by both men and the caste system.

They are treated as the property of upper caste men and are often subjected to violence and sexual assault. Historically, Dalit women were also forced into temple prostitution, known as Devdasi or Jogini systems, to serve the men of dominant castes.

More recently, Twitter has given voice to these marginalised and often persecuted groups.

It provides a platform, particularly for Dalit women, to express their thoughts and opinions, and throw light on the oppression they face. At the same time, it also provides the privileged – upper castes, dominant castes, and men – with a new way to target and abuse women and Dalits.

The rage against the concept of the Brahminical Patriarchy can help us understand the status of women in India, particularly Dalit women, whose lives are oppressed by the rituals and traditions enforced by Brahmins as custodians of Hindu religion.

This protest isn’t actually against Brahmins, just as protesting against the patriarchy doesn’t mean you are anti-men, or questioning white supremacy doesn’t mean you are attacking all white people.

All of this is important to understand – particularly if you are a big business planning on operating in India.

Caste and multinational corporations

Many multinationals corporations (MNCs) from the developed world promote egalitarian values, including gender and racial equality, through various affirmative actions.

Understanding cultural histories and sensitivities is important for big business planning on operating in India. Picture: Getty Images

But the caste system creates and maintains economic inequalities by determining what people can inherit and possess, the kind of resources and opportunities they can gain access to, and the type of rewards they receive for any contribution.

So, if these companies are operating in India, it makes sense that they should have caste-based affirmative actions. But unlike gender and race, which are conspicuous, caste is invisible.

When MNCs hire in India, many actually look for people with a certain type of family background and a cosmopolitan profile. As a result of so many accumulated advantages over centuries, the upper castes are the ones who often end up working for these MNCs and occupying positions of power.

There also still exists biases in hiring that prevents lower castes from getting equal treatment. And even when the lower castes, particularly women, enter the corporate sector, they don’t get the support to succeed and face discrimination.

So, unwittingly, these companies are replicating the caste system within their own organisations.

Any multinational operating in India needs to be aware of the ways in which caste operates – and how it can affect their potential hires, employees, workplace interactions, and even suppliers.

More importantly, they need to include caste in diversity audits and sensitise their executives and managers to caste discrimination.

Twitter and the unequal caste system

This recent example revealed that Twitter was blindsided by caste, despite the fact that the company’s legal and safety head is of Indian-origin.

It also goes to show that Twitter needs to increase caste diversity in its organisation, particularly at decision-making levels, so that people who are aware of the caste system or have lived experiences can make help create an equitable Twitter.

Many lives are oppressed by the rituals and traditions enforced by Brahmins as custodians of Hindu religion. Picture: Getty Images

But there’s more it can do.

It can take a hard look at its algorithms to monitor caste-based conversation and bullying. It can ensure that caste slurs and harassment are easy to report, and that means making sure that those who decide which tweets are caste-sensitive understand the complaints in the first place.

The social media giant also has to take a look at those who make complaints about the accounts of Dalit, women and other marginalised groups.

In the past, Twitter had blocked accounts of Dalit women purely because they were reported as offensive.

So in short, Twitter needs to get itself informed about India. It needs to become caste-diverse within the organisation and caste-sensitive on its platform.

Otherwise, it runs the risk of perpetuating the outdated and outlawed caste system by providing a platform that the privileged can use to harass and threaten the caste-disadvantaged.

A version of this article also appears on The Conversation.

Banner Image: Shutterstock

University of Melbourne Researchers