Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government cannot stand its narratives being questioned.

Control of the narrative is the very foundation of Modi’s hold on power. As a consequence, any entity that threatens to puncture the balloon is treated like an enemy.

That is why the Bharatiya Janata Party instinctively labels protesters as “anti-national”, no matter the cause. That is why ministers in Modi government took time out as the pandemic rages to discuss how to “neutralise” independent media. It is why the government is currently taking on the social media giant Twitter.

Last week, with Modi and the BJP desperately hoping that its spin doctoring would counter the impression that the government had momentously failed to contain Covid-19, members of the party released documents that they claimed revealed a “toolkit” of the Opposition Congress. The BJP claimed that the documents were proof of a Congress social media effort to undermine the image of the prime minister – as if his government’s attempts to downplay the scale of the coronavirus crisis did not do that by itself.

‘Manipulated media’

Had these documents been real, they would have mostly been unexceptionable. The BJP pioneered these sorts of coordinated social media propaganda efforts in India. In fact, Home Minister Amit Shah infamously claimed in 2018: “We are capable of delivering any message we want to the public, whether sweet or sour, true or fake

The Congress, despite former president Rahul Gandhi’s concerted efforts to use Twitter to attack the government, has historically struggled on this front. It has, however, proved to be far more adept at using the social network over the past few months to provide assistance to people in need.

But fact checkers examining the documents released by the BJP found a mixture of truth and untruth.

Technical analysis of the computer file found that the document about the Central Vista project, the Rs 20,000-crore effort to redevelop New Delhi, was real. The Congress acknowledged so. However, the other, purportedly more embarrassing file on using Covid-19 to criticise the government, appeared to have been created on a forged letterhead.

It appeared to have been prepared in May, despite covering events that had already taken place in April. It also bore an uncanny similarity with a two-week-old Twitter thread by a pro-government account. Most tellingly, it featured instructions that had not actually been implemented by Congress social media handles. The Congress has filed several complaints, claiming the documents had been forged.

Soon after these fact-checks, Twitter decided to categorise some social media posts featuring these documents – including by BJP leaders like Sambit Patra – as “manipulated media”. Incensed by this label being attached to party propaganda, the BJP reportedly asked the Ministry of Information Technology to do something, so it promptly shot off a letter to the company asking it to remove the tag.

Laughable arguments

The letter reportedly told the company that if the matter was under investigation, Twitter could not conclude that the document was “manipulated media”. The Central government-controlled Delhi Police Special Cell, which usually investigates matters like terror attacks, then visited Twitter’s offices with TV cameras in tow. As it turns out, there were no employees there because everyone was working from home. The police later claimed that they had not raided the company’s offices but were simply there to issue a notice.

Every aspect of this sorry sideshow of a story at a time when India is still dealing with the fallout of Modi’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis reflects badly upon the BJP and the government.

First, the party’s obsession with toolkits, whether on farmer protests or the Central Vista, whether fake or real, is laughable. After all, a toolkit, one social media campaigner explained, “is a booklet or document created to explain a cause or issue. It identifies approaches to address the issue from the grassroots level”.

Even if you assume some of what these documents contained is true, the BJP’s big complaint, in effect, is that the Opposition has decided to criticise the prime minister? Does anyone seriously believe that the BJP’s own infamous IT Cell isn’t putting together documents like this about other parties all the time?

Second, if it did forge the documents – as has been alleged – that is yet another indictment of the party’s priorities amidst a pandemic, which the BJP declared had been defeated earlier in the year.

Thirdly, is the ministry really arguing that social media companies should wait for an investigating agency or a court to decide before taking action on alleged misinformation? Nothing in the Information Technology rules lays this down or gives the government power to decide what label goes on content on social media.

Even if it did, would that be a wise rule to set? Is the government really arguing that there should be no content moderation at all, outside of executions of official orders?

Next, is the Special Cell investigating the Twitter label – or the allegation of forgery? Or is this simply an extension of the government’s intimidatory tactics against the social media network, as in February?

Regulating social media

There is no doubt that the tremendous power held by social media networks like Twitter and Facebook require regulatory oversight.

However, the Indian government’s most recent effort in this regard, the amended Information Technology rules, offers little hope on this front. They were issued without legislative process or open consultation. They came with little regard for privacy and an unchecked expansion of executive powers. While they may force the companies to be a little more accountable, their overall effect is likely to expand political control.

Undoubtedly, the dangers of a foreign company being able to override the decisions of Indian authorities is a problem. But given Facebook’s demonstrated willingness not to apply its own rules against hate speech when it comes to the BJP, Indian citizens should be equally concerned about foreign companies collaborating with the ruling party to clamp down on criticism and dissent. Rules must ultimately serve citizens – not the party in power.

Indeed, from the actions of the government over the last few days, it has seemed evident that, instead of engaging with the nuances of this complex policy concern which countries around the world are grappling with, Modi’s government prefers to transform it into a simpler, more dangerous question to social networks: are you with us or against us?