On May 25, the Delhi Police raided Twitter India’s offices in the city. The raid was occasioned by Twitter marking a toolkit shared by Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra as “manipulated media”. There seems to be little doubt the documents were faked. The message from the BJP government was loud and clear: criticise Prime Minister Modi or his government at your own peril.
The targeting of Twitter was one more salvo from the government in a turbulent phase of the evolving relationship between US Big Tech and the government of India. In recent months, tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook have resisted the Indian government’s diktats about banning accounts, like that of actor Kangana Ranaut, for inflammatory remarks and have been more proactive in calling out fake news and disinformation by Modi government officials, like their IT cell head, Amit Malviya.
In response, high-ranked executives from Twitter and Facebook, based in the U.S., have rushed down to mollify the Modi government which has wrangled a quid pro quo from the companies for each instance of perceived loss of face.
Though it may be tempting to read the raid on Twitter and India’s new internet laws as a battle between an overbearing authoritarian government and Big Tech firms committed to protecting free speech and minority voices, the reality is far more murky. Since 2014, when the Modi government first came to national power, Facebook and Twitter have been complicit in, and, indeed, incentivised, the spread of hostile, abusive, and violent content by the Hindu Right, which is overwhelmingly and disproportionately aimed at religious and caste minorities and critics of the Modi government.
So what accounts for this newly strained dynamic between Big Tech and the Hindu Right?
To answer this question, we have to consider the global impact of the insurrection led by White supremacists in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, which prompted the temporary deplatforming of the former White supremacist-in-chief, Donald Trump, by Twitter and Facebook. In the months following, we have seen the beginnings of a regulatory reckoning with both the market dominance of Big Tech and its pivotal role in amplifying racism, ethno-nationalism, and misogyny.
Holding these corporate behemoths accountable takes transnational efforts that can
connect the dots of racial and ethnic inequalities across national boundaries and digital networks.
In the US, the George Floyd uprisings of 2020 led to dramatic declarations of Big Tech’s new-found commitment to racial justice and inclusion. Careful to maintain their branding as non-hierarchical bastions of creativity as opposed to ruthless profiteers on the wrong side of history, Big Tech pledged new funds to address racial inequalities and made a number of splashy declarations and commitments to organisations aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement. More meaningful than corporate re-branding initiatives, employee pressure within Big Tech firms over the last several years have pushed these companies to address institutional racism within.
These employee-led campaigns have also pressed for accountability of technologically-enabled racist violence cultivated on social media, or through the data analytics of policing, surveillance and detention of migrants, and most recently, on the taboo subject within the US political discourse of advocating for Palestinian human rights.
This recent antagonism between Big Tech and US-based right-wing forces has spilled over, and at least temporarily, disrupted social media’s co-dependent relationship with white supremacists and ethno-nationalists globally. In India, the Modi government has responded to this shift by enacting new internet laws, which grant the government power to compel Facebook and Twitter to divulge any information that is asked of them. Google and Facebook have quietly fallen in line, though WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, has sued the Indian government, arguing that these laws are unconstitutional in their massive overreach and violate the principle of user privacy.
As in the US, Big Tech firms, especially social media corporations, have for too long been part of the problem. In practice, as we have seen with the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the farmers 0rotests, the Modi government and the Hindu Right has enacted an exclusive licence to threaten any and all critics on social media and advocated for banning and jailing critics on the grounds of abuse and national security. The Hindu Right seeks to justify its illogical demands by insisting the platforms should stay “neutral”, coding the abuse generated by its own adherents as defense of national interest.
To accommodate these requests, Big Tech has, for the most part, played a hypocritical game in India: it has inconsistently invoked principles of community standards and violations of human rights in shutting down critics of the Hindu Right (including Dalit and Muslim voices), while claiming commitment to free speech in allowing abuse of Dalit and Muslim communities by the Hindu Right to go unchecked.
The presence of marginalised caste groups online has not been studied as exhaustively as other dimensions of Indian online political culture. Dalit groups have had some success in bypassing legacy media’s upper caste bias to advocate for justice using social media platforms. Yet, research and journalistic coverage shows that as in the U.S. context with African American communities, Dalits are both marginalised and subject to relentless violence online. One recent report by the International Dalit Solidarity Network, Caste-Hate Speech: Addressing Hate Speech in Work and Descent, outlines the specific nature of anti-Dalit humiliation and hate within Indian online communities.
A recent report by the Indian Dalit Solidarity Network, Caste-Hate Speech: Addressing Hate Speech in Work and Descent, outlines the specific nature of anti-Dalit humiliation and hate within Indian online communities. The report describes assertions of caste-pride on Tik Tok and other platforms, derogatory memes like “OK Bhimer”, which deliberately target Dalit users on social media, as well as the troubling record of social media platforms in shutting down Dalit accounts compounding a pervasive climate of online caste discrimination and inequality.
It is worth noting that Indian liberals, whether ordinary users or Bollywood celebrities, who might engage in performative social media solidarity for global causes like climate change and Black Lives Matter, remain largely silent about anti-minority discrimination and violence back home, especially when it is aimed at Dalits. The social media silence about the dubious charges of terrorism levied against renowned Dalit scholar and activist, Anand Teltumbde, who was one of 16 prominent scholars and activists in 2020 under the Unlawful Atrocities Prevention Act speaks volumes.
If we agree with a growing body of scholarship that shows discriminatory practices are deeply embedded within Facebook, Twitter and Google’s socio-technical infrastructures, how does corporate accountability on grounds of racial injustice translate in an India ruled by the ethno-nationalist BJP? The Modi government is skilled in its ability to deflect criticism of its draconian new internet laws in the anti-colonial langauge of “digital sovereignty”, positioning itself in heroic terms against the nefarious interests of Western governments, foreign civil society and even Western corporate power.
As our brief discussion makes apparent, both white supremacists in the US and the Hindu Right in India have made unprecedented political gains thanks to a globally unregulated platform capitalism. The sustained work of activists in the US., including the Black Lives Matter movement, has pressured Big Tech to respond to egregious ethical violations and repeated abuse of platform policies.
While in India, the Modi government has done its best to squash internal dissent in all its forms online and off-line, transnational efforts to hold Big Tech accountable to racist and casteist inequalities and practices are having an impact. This includes raising questions about caste discrimination and inequality in the design and make-up of tech as an industry and a workforce and demanding reparative redress for caste-based humiliation, hate speech and violence online.
Looking forward to what might be a brief period of antagonism between Big Tech and the Hindu Right in India, we should not lose sight of what is really at stake in this conflict: corporate accountability of Big Tech to the marginalised communities who have suffered harm. After all, that would seem to be the minimal condition for equal access to the internet.
Paula Chakravartty is associate professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communication, New York University.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication, Santa Clara University.