The past month has seen an unusual, recurring news item dominate the media cycle: the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian government taking on the American social media corporation Twitter.
Matters were kicked off in February when a new set of rules for social media platforms and digital news outlets, called the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code were announced. Amongst other things, they held that social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook needed to censor speech as per an expanded – and vague – set of definitions, set up a compliance team that resides in India and take down content within 36 hours of being ordered to do so by the government.
Expert opinion on the rules has not been positive. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a United States-based digital rights group, has argued that they will have “profound implications for the privacy and freedom of expression” since they “create new possibilities for government surveillance of citizens” and “threaten the idea of a free and open internet built on a bedrock of international human rights standards”.
Even before these new rules came into effect, the government’s antagonism towards Twitter – and in particular its reputation as a space where dissent and criticism can thrive alongside official pronouncements – had been on display.
In February, the Indian government demanded that Twitter take down hundreds of accounts featuring criticism of the state in connection with the large-scale farmer protests that had been on since November. The social network initially refused, but eventually relented after its local employees were threatened with prison time. The company also published a blogpost in which it said, “we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law.”
Taking on Twitter
Matters reached a boil as the new rules came into effect on May 26. Since then, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the governments controlled by it have been in a very public war with Twitter.
On May 24, Twitter’s officers were raided by the Delhi Police, in case where the government appeared to be annoyed that the ruling party’s propaganda was labeled “manipulated media” by the social network. Later on June 16, the Uttar Pradesh police sought to question the India head of Twitter for allowing an elderly Muslim man’s hate crime allegations to be published on its platform. Currently, Twitter has moved the Supreme Court to stay any coercive action.
Notably, even as the man’s allegations were published across social media platforms, it was only Twitter that came under fire.
Cases have also been filed against Twitter around allegations that it has published in incorrect map, showing areas occupied by Pakistan as not part of India, as well as allegations that child pornography was available on the platform. On July 5, the government filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court arguing that Twitter had lost the immunity from legal action provided to online platforms because it had failed to comply with portions of the new IT rules.
To understand why this fight has broken out, it might be useful to look at just how unique Twitter is in India.
In terms of bald numbers, Twitter India is actually rather small. As per data from India’s minister of electronics and information technology, it has 15 million users. That is a fifth of the Twitter base in the United States and just 1% of the Indian population. In comparison, Facebook has 410 million users in India. Whatsapp and YouTube have around half a billion.
Yet, these numbers hardly convey the impact that Twitter has on public conversation in India – especially with respect to politics.
The BJP’s rise in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was partly driven by activity on Twitter, which then trickled out to larger audiences through the regular newsmedia and services like WhatsApp. So strong is the BJP’s presence on the platform, in fact, that many of the party’s critics – and sometimes even its own out-of-favour leaders – accuse it of using coordinated attacks by its “IT Cell” in an effort to dominate narratives.
This has only grown since then, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi often using the American social media platform as his primary public outreach tool. From pandemic to international relations, government policy is often announced first on Twitter. So critical is the platform in politics that even complaints against Twitter by the Indian government are often made, ironically enough, on Twitter.
Feeding prime time
Manisha Pande, executive editor with the media critique website Newslaundry, argues that this in fact goes one step further, with even media outlets seen to be friendly to the BJP, depending critically on Twitter for their programming. “There is not even a pretense of reporting – many prime time debates on TV channels simply go with the conversations on Twitter,” she explained. “This trend is so strong that often panelists on these debates will be BJP-leaning Twitter personalities with few other credentials other than having large follower counts on the website.”
Udhbav Tiwari, Mozilla’s public policy advisor in India, also points to the unique role of Twitter in India. “From the most-watched news channels deciding their prime-time coverage based on trending hashtags to mass mobilisations such as those around the anti-CAA or farmer protests, Twitter has become an important gauge of public discourse in India,” he pointed out.
It is this outsized role in the Indian public sphere that makes them a good target. “Controlling the narrative on Twitter is therefore critical,” said Manisha Pande. “Since it feeds into so much of the mainstream news.”
The Indian government goes to significant lengths to ensure that speech is controlled, with a slew of laws governing the news media space. The fact that Twitter, which offers a powerful space for conversation, is resisting control is unpalatable to the state.
“More than anything else, the government is now looking at Twitter since it has the power to control the narrative,” the founder of Medianama, an Indian website focused on technology policy, Nikhil Pahwa explained. “These platforms have the power to control speech, so the government is saying, I want my power back. The government hasn’t exerted its authority till now – but that’s changing.”
The inflection point that Pahwa speaks of can be seen from the data released by Twitter on content removal requests by the Indian authorities. The first half of 2020 (the latest data made public) had 2,772 requests from India – an increase of almost four times compared to the last six months of 2019. Notably, the period corresponded to a time of hectic political activity, with the protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act as well as the first Covid lockdown.
The government’s hostility towards the service, in turn, kills two birds with one stone. It, of course, puts pressure on Twitter itself. But it also serves as a warning for the entire social media industry. “It seems that Twitter is being made an example of by the government in trying to exert greater control over social media,” explained Pahwa.
This is not surprising: Twitter is an easy target for the Indian government.
“Twitter has significantly less local investment in India compared to, say, Facebook,” explained Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia Pacific Policy Director at Access Now, a global nonprofit that works on digital rights. ”Thus it is easy to make an example of it. It has never had the same level of interaction with the Indian government and local politics as, say, Facebook.”
Last year, for example, Facebook bought a stake worth $5.7 billion in Reliance’s Jio Platforms. A few months later, it got permission to launch its payments service in India via its messaging app, Whatsapp. With Whatsapp’s massive user base and electronic payments growing rapidly in India, this could be a significant source of future revenue for Facebook.
This economic investment has moved hand in hand with Facebook developing political roots in India. In October, Facebook’s India public policy head had to step down following allegations that she bent her platform’s rules in order to accommodate the BJP. In reaction, the Indian opposition claimed that Facebook and the BJP had a nexus, with one leader even accusing Facebook’s senior management in India of being “de facto campaign managers for the BJP”.
Twitter India’s political as well as economic roots in India, by comparison, are much shallower, with the company’s main focus being its communications platform.
Twitter fights back
While the Indian government has gone after Twitter, the platform itself has responded with recalcitrance, making it a point to ignore or in some cases even violate laws and requests from the Indian government.
On May 21, Twitter labelled Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra’s tweet on a “toolkit”, allegedly prepared by the Congress earlier that month in order to use the Covid-19 crisis to attack the Modi government, as “manipulated media” after fact checkers found that the document was created on a fake Congress letterhead.
The platform has also been publicising requests from Indian law enforcement agencies around the alleged illegality of content. While there is no requirement for it to do so, making the requests public ensures poor publicity for the government.
Most significantly of course, Twitter has not complied with the new IT rules. The Times of India reported on Friday that the platform has not appointed the required compliance personnel.
Chima explains this by pointing to global trends. “After the deplatforming of [US President Donald] Trump, Twitter is under pressure from public opinion, human rights groups and others to globally apply its US-triggered measures to combat disinformation,” he said. “It needs to be seen to be upholding values such as free speech and cracking down on hate speech.”
India is not the only country where Twitter has angered politicians. Nigeria banned the social network after it deleted a tweet that posted by the president for violating its rules. Russia has deliberately slowed down traffic to the service after it refused to take down content posted by critics of the Kremlin. And in the US, Republicans angered by Twitter’s deplatforming of Trump have sought to reform the laws that provide it and other social networks with legal immunity for user-generated material.
This trend was, in fact, not lost on the BJP.
“I think it would be fair to say that the sharpest reaction to the Trump Twitter ban outside of the US came from BJP-affiliated voices,” Chima said. “There was a sense that if Twitter could do this to an American president being an American company, it would get much worse here. Maybe that catalysed the Modi government’s decision to enforce regulation with respect to Twitter.”
To some extent, the BJP’s fears were not unfounded.
Twitter has taken on the government in this round with surprising alacrity. In June, Twitter’ global legal lead Vijaya Gadde said at Rights Con, a conference on digital rights convened by global nonprofit Access Now that Twitter was “walking the talk” when it came to protecting free speech against the actions of the Indian government.
“We’ve declined a number of orders since we think they violate Indian as well as international law,” she said. “They are targeting very particular activists or journalists or opposition parties. And we felt these aren’t in compliance with Indian law. So those accounts and those tweets in many instances remain on the platform.”
In this, Twitter is an outlier when it comes to the social media industry. “Twitter does seem to be more open to drawing a firm line, despite run-ins with the Indian government,” explained Malavika Raghavan, a lawyer researching the impact of digitisation in India. “In fact, that seems to be true even in the United States, where they reacted by locking Trump’s account following his tweets after the US Capitol attack.”
Raghavan point is backed up by the data. For the January-June 2020 period, Facebook’s compliance rate for Indian information requests was 50%. The corresponding figure for Twitter was just 1%.
As these giants – the government of India and Twitter – slug it out, hanging in the balance are the digital rights of Indians. And with more than 700 million of us online, this is a critical moment not only for India but for digital rights around the globe.
Scroll.in has asked Twitter and the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology for comment. The piece will be updated when they respond.