The social media platform is a casualty of the government’s fear of dissent — and it’s not the only one.
A few months ago, India’s Covid-19 surge had surpassed all superlatives. The greatest public-health crisis in Indian history has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives — maybe more — and exposed the country’s dire healthcare infrastructure. Amid the horror, as armies of medical staff and volunteers concentrated their efforts on combating the virus, the government appeared to be focused on a different sort of threat: Twitter.
The immediate source of the crisis was a tweet posted on May 18, by Sambit Patra, the BJP spokesperson. In this tweet, Patra brandished a document he called a “toolkit”, apparently an internal Congress document, laying out the procedures to undermine the BJP’s response to the pandemic and boost coverage of the party’s efforts. After fact-checking organisations deemed the document to be forged, Twitter tagged Patra’s tweet with a label warning that it was “manipulated media”. Days later, the Delhi Police, which, in this not full-fledged state reports to the Union government, visited Twitter’s offices in Delhi and Gurugram, apparently to investigate why the firm had chosen to affix the warning label to Patra’s tweet.
Railing against the alleged left-leaning bias of social-media firms has been a consistent message among national-populist leaders. American Republicans, for example, still largely in thrall to former president Donald Trump and his long list of grievances, continue to characterise Twitter, Facebook, and others as running a lefty conspiracy to silence conservative views, and demand more regulation to counter this alleged censorship. But the BJP’s outright attack on Twitter is beyond the pale for a democratic country.
The most recent events are not the only time during the pandemic that the government has chosen to focus on digital image management. In April, Twitter and Facebook took down around 100 posts after receiving government orders to do so. Many of these tweets were critical of the government’s response to the pandemic. After the farm protests, too, Twitter acceded to BJP demands to block some 500 accounts permanently, and some temporarily, including those of opposition politicians and journalists.
Critics have portrayed Twitter and its boss, Jack Dorsey, as being too willing to kowtow to the BJP’s demands to suppress their opponents. It is not as straightforward as that: After giving in to the government’s initial request to mass-block accounts related to the farm protests, Twitter chose to reverse course, citing its users’ freedom of speech, but then flip-flopped again, re-suspending most of those accounts, in some cases permanently. The firm released a statement on the matter — “will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted. We remain committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation occurring on Twitter, and strongly believe that the Tweets should flow.” While Twitter’s values may be shaped by a commitment to free speech and the right to dissent, the barrage of blocking orders that have become a regular feature of the IT Ministry’s operations leave them little legal leeway. The firm has also been engaged in a long-term spat with the government over the new IT rules, which significantly increase social-media sites’ liability for content posted by their users.
The government, despite its talk of building an Atmanirbhar Bharat and its support of amateurish indigenous social networks like Koo, clearly cares a great deal about the way it is portrayed on huge platforms like Twitter, which has some 17.5 million Indian users.
Governments in many parts of the world have long viewed platforms like Twitter with suspicion, fearful of the raucous public forum that they provide for debate and dissent. The company’s recent willingness to stand up to digital misbehaviour by world leaders has increased the hostility it has faced from dictators and their understudies. On June 4, Muhammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, blocked Twitter in that country after the company removed one of his tweets for the “abusive” content it contained. In America, Trump had his entire account suspended after consistently violating Twitter’s policies. India is only the latest arena of discontent.
But Twitter is not the only collateral casualty of the government’s fear of dissent. In 2016, the country registered more internet shutdowns than any other. In 2017, the government amended the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885 to specify that the law now allowed “the temporary suspension of telecom services”. Data compiled by the Software Freedom Law Centre (SFLC), a Delhi-based digital rights group, shows that the number of internet shutdowns has jumped from three in 2012, to five in 2013, six 2014, 14 in 2015, 34 in 2016, 79 in 2017, 134 in 2018, 106 in 2019 and 129 in 2020. The rise of the number of internet shutdowns after 2014 reflects the BJP’s policy: Between Narendra Modi’s election in 2014 and the autumn of 2017, out of 89 internet shutdowns, 74 were due to the BJP and its allies at the national, state or district levels. Since 2016, every year India has resorted to more internet shutdowns than any other country for two official reasons — public safety and public order. For instance, in 2019, internet shutdowns were used to complicate communication among protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Bill – even though their demonstrations were legal and peaceful.
Ironically, social media — including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter — have helped the BJP to saturate the public space thanks to an army of trolls. How will these companies, which claim that they are deeply attached to freedom of expression, assess the current situation?
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 9, 2021 under the title ‘Who’s afraid of Twitter?’ Jaffrelot is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London; Sharma is a freelance writer on politics and technology.
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