Few social media websites are as conjoined with politics as the American microblogging website Twitter. In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party often runs Twitter political campaigns, a large chunk of prime time news seems to originate from topics being discussed on the site and politicians use it as a public address system.

As a consequence of this immense influence, the website has frequently come under attack for being biased, of boosting the reach of some types of users and suppressing the voices of others. In the United States, concerns have been raised that the website encourages White nationalism. In Britain, reporting has indicated that Far Right supporters of Brexit were helped by Twitter. In the Arab world, authoritarian regimes have often been accused of running bot armies in order to try and silence dissent.

Similar concerns have been raised about Twitter in India. Since Saturday, in fact, large numbers of users have been protesting on the website itself, accusing the company of encouraging casteist and communal attitudes by diminishing backward caste and minority voices even while acting as an amplifier for hate speech.

Online protests

The online protests were sparked off by restrictions placed on the Twitter account of Dilip Mandal on Friday. Mandal is an Adjunct Professor at the Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication and consulting editor with the news website The Print.

Users of the website started by tweeting out their objection to Mandal being banned, using the hashtag #restoredilipmandal.

The Twitter logo with the upper caste sacred thread imposed on it.

This protest soon segued into larger complaints about Twitter’s alleged social discrimination. Users then started to use hashtags like #CasteistTwitter, #JaiBhimTwitter (Jai Bhim, a a popular Dalit slogan, is a reference to Bhim Rao Ambedkar) and #BrahmanicalTwitter. Soon matters shifted to trying to get the hashtag #SackManishMaheshwari to trend – a Twitter feature that prominently features popular hashtags on the website. Maheshwari is the managing director for Twitter India.

Public sphere

In an interview to Scroll.in, Dilip Mandal pointed out why it is important for Twitter to act fairly. “Social media is part of what we call the public sphere now,” said Mandal. “In a democracy, this has a very important role to play and it’s vital it remain unbiased and fair to all users.”

Other grievances included the allegation that Twitter ensures upper caste people are easily verified – a Twitter feature where a “blue tick” is placed against a person’s name, signifying that the account is authentic and not an impersonation. Users also criticised what they felt were unfair bans and restrictions placed on backward caste and minority users.

“People speaking against the ruling dispensation are banned for bizarre reasons while handles associated with the ruling party can get away with extreme hate speech,” claimed Mandal.

Recent examples of hate being disseminated on Twitter include the mocking of the religious identity of a two-year old Christian boy who died in an accident as well as the fact the a “boycott Muslims” trend was not removed by the platform.

While Twitter took no action in these instances, it banned prominent Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde for sharing a poem by noted Hindi writer Gorakh Pandey.

Twitter being compared to the Manu Smiriti, the ancient text that prescribes how caste must be observed.

Spilling over

This social media movement has attracted attention from wider Dalit circles. Sanjay Raut, Chairman of the Congress’ Scheduled Caste wing has tweeted out his support as has Udit Raj, former BJP MP who joined the Congress earlier this year.

On Monday, the Dalit rights organisation, the Bhim Army, staged a protest at Twitter India’s Mumbai office. The matter ended with the Bhim Army claiming that Twitter had promised to look into the matter. “They apologised to us,” said Ashok Kamble, the Bhim Army head for Maharashtra. “They told us to contact us if there are any issues.”

Representatives of the Bhim Army meet with Twitter executives in Mumbai on Monday. Credit: Ashok Kamble

Ashok Bharti, Chairman of the All India Ambedkar Mahasabha, sees the incident as a sign of changing social mores. “Twitter was essentially an elite, upper caste club,” he said. “Now the non-elite sections Dalits, Adivasis, minorities – they are now on Twitter and they want to raise their voice.”

Bharti sees Twitter’s current actions as an attempt to snuff out this change. “Dalits have used social media to great effect,” he said. “We organised the 2018 Bharat Bandh which forced the Supreme Court to take back its dilution of the SC/ST [Prevention of Atrocities] act. Now after seeing our success, curbs are being placed for greater SC/ST/OBC and minority participation in social media.”

Scroll.in has emailed Twitter to seek comment on these allegations. Twitter is yet to reply. This article will be updated if the company responds.