It’s a fait accompli, one supposes. In record quick time, Twitter last week capitulated to the Narendra Modi government’s order that it ban a wide range of accounts that were critical of the latter’s actions regarding the farmers’ protests in India. The Indian government’s demand was accompanied by a threat that it would imprison Twitter’s employees in India if the social media giant failed to comply with the diktat.
The ultimatum came as no surprise for a government that historian and commentator Ramachandra Guha recently described quite perfectly in an interview with journalist Karan Thapar as “authoritarian, sectarian, and incompetent”.
Add to that the notoriously thin-skinned nature of Narendra Modi and his fan club, who cannot bear any criticism of the man and his government – especially negative international press – and you know that they would have likely made good on their threat.
Plus, going forward they would have likely created endless trouble for Twitter. Even though Modi and his followers likely need Twitter more than Twitter needs the Indian market, which is not currently a major source of revenue for it, the platform does not want to forfeit the sheer potential volume of future users that India represents.
This is why Twitter’s senior executives Monique Meche and Jim Baker arranged post-haste to Indian meet officials. In the meantime, the controversy has claimed as a casualty India’s head of public policy, Mahima Kaul, and has drawn a statement from Twitter’s senior management that it will “restructure” its India team to ensure better communication with the government.
Ironies galore. Kaul’s appointment was itself a somewhat supplicatory gesture by Twitter after the Hindutva supporters had relentlessly attacked Raheel Khursheed, who had served as Head of News, Politics and Government for Twitter India from 2014 to 2018, for being “anti-Modi”.
The backtracking has taken place in the wake of two earlier controversies involving Twitter. First, the media firm suspended, and then undid the suspension of, handles of activists, mediapersons, and other critics of the government.
Secondly, Twitter was at the heart of a national controversy involving tweets by pop star Rihanna and climate change activist Greta Thunberg in support of the farmers’ protests, in response to which the Indian government, Hindutva supporters and Indian celebrities thoroughly embarrassed themselves by overreacting.
Twitter, however, has insisted it will not suspend or geo-block accounts of Indian media organisations and activists on the grounds of free speech. Whether this is them drawing a line in the sand on principle or a face-saving gesture, after having been thoroughly humiliated, is, shall we say, up for grabs. The Indian government is grumbling about the few accounts that have been spared but my sense is that having won the larger war, they will let it go.
The Indian government has been affecting a pose of injured grievance about the accounts it demanded shut on grounds that these Twitter handles were, one, breaking the law of the land, and, two, misrepresenting facts on the ground by throwing around words like “genocide”.
Both claims are laughable.
The Modi government was rattled by the attention that the tweets by Rihanna and Thunberg generated, which threatened to make the farmers’ protests an international cause. Hollywood A-listers like Susan Sarandon, NFL stars, and others were voicing their support for the farmers’ right to protest and condemning the Indian government’s tactics of brutality.
As far as the laws of the land are concerned, both on Twitter and off it, some Bharatiya Janata Party politicians and Hindutva supporters have been breaking these laws with blistering frequency and utter impunity for the last six years.
As a particularly egregious example of what has been occuring on the ground, consider the hate speech of four BJP leaders, Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Verma, and Abhay Verma, leading up to the Delhi 2020 riots, which resulted in the deaths of 50 people, the majority of whom were Muslims.
Kapil Mishra had openly threatened violence against those protesting the controversial citizenship law at the time.
The inquiry into the role played by these politicians in fomenting the riots was an utter farce. The Delhi Police, who are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Home Affairs, practically allowed the riots to proceed through deliberate inaction, drawing rebuke from the Supreme Court.
To make matters worse, in a perverse weaponisation and obscene mockery of the very idea of the law, the Delhi Police then filed rioting charges against critics of the government, including academics and politicians from opposition parties.
Across the length and breadth of the country, there is no dearth of such examples of the disregard, misuse and abuse of the law by the Modi government and BJP state governments, from the string of mysterious murders in the Vyapam case and the chaotic state of affairs in Uttar Pradesh under Adityanath.
On Twitter, from well before the day Modi was elected, the army of Hindutva trolls, which include in their ranks economists, professionals, A-grade to Z-grade celebrities, as well as garden-variety supporters, have abused, threatened, and humiliated Indian Muslims, Dalits, and government critics. This is by now so exhaustively documented as to be accepted as common fact, with many of the worst offenders followed by Modi,
Muslims in particular, routinely abused as treasonous, disloyal, descendents of invaders, and the like, are repeatedly attacked by virtual Hindu nationalist mobs on every possible pretext. A relatively recent example is the deluge of anti-Muslim tweets in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
As far as the misrepresentation of facts goes – for that is another argument being marshalled by Indian bureaucrats in demanding Twitter shut down a whole host of accounts – the sheer chutzpah of the BJP government is to be admired on this matter. Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s IT cell, is a one-man factory of fake news and has mastered the art of using misinformation to devastating political effect.
So, it is a burning question as to why Twitter has not permanently suspended large numbers of abusive Hindutva handles, including those of prominent BJP political figures, given that they could do the same to Donald Trump and White Supremacists in the US. After all, despite their delusions of grandeur, none of these Hindu nationalist ideologues, including Modi, are as important as a sitting American president. If Twitter could ban Donald Trump, well, then, what gives in the Indian context?
It is worth noting that many BJP leaders, such as Tejasvi Surya, for example, were rattled to the bone at the prospect that they could be shut down, given that Twitter had had swiftly erased Trump from its platform in the blink of an eye.
The truth is simply that Indian Muslim lives, and Indian minority lives, in general, just don’t matter to Twitter or media companies. Perhaps this is true of minority lives in the American context as well. Twitter did not very much care about the abusive tweets and culture of violence propagated by White Supremacists, Trump fans, and Trump himself till the violence in the US Capitol on January 6.
It was only after matters reached a breaking point and crisis in the US that Twitter took action, plausibly to protect its brand image, to prevent further criticism, and to ward off investor and shareholder anxiety that its share price might plummet.
Twitter’s action to ban Trump, was, in essence, no more than virtue signalling coupled with cold cost-benefit calculation. Still, at least Twitter did act in the American context, even if it was a symbolic gesture and one that came much too late to be meaningful.
In the Indian context, banning Hindutva sympathisers does not work to the advantage of Twitter in any way whatsoever. There is no capital to be gained for Twitter by doing the right thing in the Indian context. Or, to put it bluntly, despite their waffling on about rights, freedom of speech, and the law, Indian Muslim and minority lives simply don’t matter for Twitter.
Rohit Chopra is an Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University.