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India is a globally important market for the social media platform Twitter. Even though in absolute numbers its 23 to 24 million users is small compared to the size of the population of what is now thought to be the world’s most populous country, it is believed to be the platform’s third biggest market after the US and Japan.
Recent events relating to India and Twitter should therefore be taken in context of the country’s importance for Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk.
Even before Musk’s takeover of Twitter in October 2022, Narendra Modi’s government has not been slow to ask the platform to remove content which it disagrees with.
India has been in the top five nations that have asked Twitter to remove content or block accounts for the past three years. In its July 2022 transparency report, Twitter said that 97% of the total global volume of legal demands for such removals in the last half of 2021 originated from five countries: Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and India.
You could argue that because Twitter has so many users in the country, this is inevitable. However, the US does not feature in this list despite being the biggest market.
The Indian government clearly has a problem with what its critics are saying on Twitter.
In line with the worsening situation for media freedom in the country, India frequently clamps down on what the media is able to say on Twitter. In the last half of 2021, India was the country making the highest number of legal demands relating to the accounts of verified journalists and news outlets, some 114 out of a total of 326 for the period, comfortably ahead of Turkey and Russia.
A new onslaught on what Indians are saying on Twitter may have opened up last week. On 6 April, an amendment to India’s Information Technology Act came into force which now requires social media platforms to fact-check any post relating to the Indian government’s business with the Press Information Bureau, a “fact-checking” unit that is part of the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The threat to social media platforms who do not comply with this is that they would then no longer be protected by the country’s safe harbour regulations under which they are currently not liable for what their users post.
The Indian digital liberties organisation Internet Freedom Foundation says it is “deeply concerned” by the amendments.
It said in a statement: “Assigning any unit of the government such arbitrary, overbroad powers to determine the authenticity of online content bypasses the principles of natural justice, thus making it an unconstitutional exercise. The notification of these amended rules cement the chilling effect on the fundamental right to speech and expression, particularly on news publishers, journalists, activists, etc.”
Twitter has long published details of how it handles requests from governments. In the event of a successful legal demand, such as a court order, Twitter follows these rules if it is required to delete individual tweets or an entire account. Typically these rules relate to a single country.
Under Musk’s ownership, these rules look as though they are changing.
Indian investigative journalist Saurav Das wrote recently about discovering that a number of his tweets had been removed and that they were not available worldwide. He told Scroll.In that tweets relating to Union Home Minister Amit Shah had been removed worldwide, not just in India.
The tweets seem relatively benign, although Das says he cannot remember exactly the context around posting them.
Can Twitter allow the Indian government to sit in judgement over content that it may deem fit for blocking in America, or any other country apart from India? Because Twitter has clearly blocked access to the tweets on “legal demand” from India, as can be seen from this ss. pic.twitter.com/F7YhgWCWs8
— Saurav Das (@OfficialSauravD) April 8, 2023
Tweeting on 9 April in response Das said, “Can Twitter allow the Indian government to sit in judgement over content that it may deem fit for blocking in America, or any other country apart from India?”.
He added, “If this global restriction of content on behest of a country’s govt is ignored, this will open a whole new chapter of censorship and prove disastrous for free speech and expression.”
Twitter’s actions seem to fly in the face of its stated policy – pre-Musk ownership – towards India. In 2021, Twitter said that it would only block content and accounts within India and said it would not do so for “news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians”. That scope now appears to have changed.
I asked Twitter’s press team for a statement on the case and received an automated email containing just a poop emoji. This has been a common response from Twitter’s press email since Elon Musk’s takeover, when the press team was significantly reduced.
During Elon Musk’s surprise interview with the BBC this week, Musk was asked about the issue of censorship of social media in India in the wake of the country banning the BBC’s documentary on Narendra Modi. Musk said: “The rules in India for what can appear on social media are quite strict, and we can’t go beyond the laws of a country…if we have a choice of either our people go to prison or we comply with the laws, we’ll comply with the laws.”
Recent estimates suggest that India has now overtaken China in population size, but where the world’s most populated country should be a beacon of democracy, the opposite may be true.
Under Narendra Modi, the press is being strangled; the judiciary is no longer independent; and protesters are thrown in jail. You can read more about this in our forthcoming Spring 2023 issue, where our Special Report focuses on the state of free expression in Modi’s India.
In the meantime, here is a quiz to get a flavour of what to expect.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”113291″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]The Indian state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has seen an acceleration of violence against Muslims, further silencing of political dissent and attacks on press freedom. These trends are being tracked on the Index on Censorship global map monitoring media freedom violations during the coronavirus pandemic, put together by our staff, our contributors and readers as well as our partners at the Justice for Journalists Foundation.
One pattern to emerge is Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s determination to control the coronavirus narrative. Before the lockdown was announced, Modi met with the press to urge them to only publish “inspiring, positive stories” about the government’s handling of coronavirus. Many outlets have buckled under the pressure, fearful of being branded unpatriotic. As reported on the Index map, part of this was a campaign by Modi’s government for advertisers and businesses to cut support for independent news outlets. This has presented an enormous danger to the free press in India. If only pro-government media are allowed to flourish during one of the biggest global crises in recent years, those with the power to protect, or neglect, people’s health and well-being will not be held to account for their actions.
Journalists whose reporting does not follow the party line on coronavirus face harassment and detention by the state. For example, independent news website the Wire reported that Yogi Adityanath, a fundamentalist Hindu cleric and chief minister of India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh, attended a religious ceremony after the lockdown had been announced. This did not chime well with the presiding narrative that the Muslim community are to blame for the spread of the virus. There have been reports that Siddharth Varadarajan, founder-editor of the Wire, is now facing criminal proceedings for, among other things, “creating or promoting enmity between classes”.
Thousands of people, including jurists and academics, have signed a public statement condemning the state’s actions, calling legal action against Varadarajan an attack on press freedom. While this support is undoubtedly appreciated by Varadarajan, Modi’s attitude towards the press since he came to power in 2014, and continuing in the wake of coronavirus, means things do not bode well for him.
But these are not the only attacks tracked on our map. Journalists have also faced physical violence in the street while trying to report on the outbreak. Naveen Kumar from news website Aaj Tak was beaten by police in Delhi on his way to his office on 23rd March. On the same day Ravi Reddy, bureau chief at The Hindu, was attacked by three policemen in Hyderabad. Mendu Srinivas, political bureau chief at Andhra Jyothy, was also beaten by police in Hyderabad. Since 2014, there have been over 200 serious attacks on journalists.
We have also had reports of journalists being accused of spreading “fake news”. As with many allegations of fake news that we have tracked on the map, more often than not the charge is being used to silence people. At the same time, misinformation is being allowed to spread like wildfire. In a sadly predictable turn of events, rumours have spread online that the Muslim community is responsible for the virus’ spread.
As a result, Muslims have been physically attacked in the street and Sikh temples have warned people against buying milk from Muslim dairy farmers, claiming it is infected with coronavirus. Mohammed Haider, who runs a milk stall, told The New York Times: “People only need a small reason to beat us or lynch us.” The Indian Express, a widely read daily national newspaper, reported that hospitals were segregating Muslim and Hindu coronavirus patients, quoting a doctor as saying it was a government decision.
The events of the past year have shone a light on the mistreatment of Muslims in India. The repealing of Article 370 and the subsequent internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir from August, and the Citizenship Law in December, both discriminated against Muslims. Now the coronavirus outbreak has provided another excuse to demonise and discriminate Muslims in the country.
And this might highlight the biggest trend of all, namely that the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated issues already bubbling beneath the surface since Modi came to power in 2014. In this environment, a free press has never felt more important.
If you know of any examples of violations against the media in India or elsewhere, please do report them to our map. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
A month has passed since Narendra Modi became prime minister of India, and brought the right wing Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party) back into power. Much has been written about his government, with observers either hailing him as an economic messiah who will fix India’s dwindling economy or a divisive politician who has built his career on the back of communalism.
Those watching freedoms, especially of free speech and the media, are among the people apprehensive about life under Modi’s government. While the prime minister himself has blogged about the importance of free expression, recent arrests, including of citizens directly critical of him, paint a worrying picture. Additionally, the rise of “communal posts” on social media, real or planed, have lead to violence on the ground, and a debate about how best to police social media and free speech online.
In June, a young Muslim IT graduate lost his life to an angry mob in the city of Pune, Maharashtra, due to violence that erupted after morphed pictures of a historical figure appeared on Facebook and WhatsApp. The pictures were said to be triggers for crowds to damage shops and public transport, ultimately resulting in communal violence and the loss of an innocent life. However, reports from the Anti Terror Squad of the Maharashtra police indicate that the outbreak of violence following the uploaded picture does not seem sporadic or unplanned.
The state government has issued familiar warnings about the misuse of social media by groups that are looking to incite communal tension. Home Minister, R. R. Patil, was quoted as saying that “anti-social elements are posting inflammatory posts to stoke hatred, bitterness and disharmony between sects”, warning that such posts could result in action not just against those who post the photos, but also those who “like” them. Of course, this was the same state which saw two girls were arrested last year for allegedly sparking communal violence — one for writing a Facebook update, and the other girl simply for “liking” it. Therefore, any action by the government needs to be tempered by what the fallout could be for ordinary citizens and their right to free speech.
But authorities are not alone in seeking a solution to the problem of potentially inflammatory social media postings — civil society groups are also trying novel ideas to counter the trend. Ravi Ghate, a social entrepreneur and founder of a community SMS newsletter in Maharashtra, has banded together with like-minded folks to form a group on Facebook called “Social Peace Force”. Amassing over 18,000 members in ten days, the mission of the group is to “stop anti-social messages on Facebook” by reporting them as spam. “It’s the easiest and technological way to fight the culprits who are spreading anti-national messages/images and stopping ourselves from development!” is the logic the group adheres to. Many of the new members have posted comments indicating their genuine desire to help stop the spread of abusive and communal messages. Therefore, once identified, all members of the group will report a message or posting to Facebook thereby pressurising them to remove the post before it can do any more damage. The group has also instituted a panel of experts who are meant to examine any troubling post and give the go-ahead for the group to act.
What has spurred this move? “How many times can you go to court,” Ghate told Index. “It is too expensive. And the problem is that by the time the police takes down the content, the riot has already taken place.” For them, “suppressing content at the source” in a timely manner is key. A technological solution within the boundaries of Facebook’s own rules of engagement seems to some a far more pragmatic solution than going to the courts again and again.
Seen from a broader lens however, the group’s solution seems to be to shift the onus from the courts to decide the parameters of free expression and “objectionable” content, to big, profit-making, multinational corporates. What might seem today a no-brainer because of some obviously mischievous content, could in time, pose an interesting dilemma: Should social media giants control the boundaries of (social media based) speech in countries such as India, based on their own internal policies, and not the laws of the land? And all this, because of a push by the citizens themselves, to bypass courts and go directly to the corporates.
It is ironic that “Big Brother’ – which is what some newspaper headlines called the group – when translated into Hindi could be interpreted as “elder brother”, indicating a protective instinct, which certainly seems to be the case here. The current mandate of the group is only to focus on religious content to keep “social harmony”. That in itself is not a straightforward task; just ask Wendy Doniger, author of ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. However, this and the many spinoff groups they will inspire could morph into something they did not intend. Legitimate art, literature, satire and other forms of expression could become victims of the mob. Then there is danger of more organised groups and political parties taking to social media directly to suppress content — especially political critique — on a regular basis. And finally, those who wish to subvert social media platforms to have an excuse to incite violence on the street, will certainly find more creative ways to do so.
There is of course, the other side of the coin. Will Facebook remove content that has been pre-determined to be objectionable when faced with a large number of people reporting it? The simple answer is, we don’t know. Facebook has its own community standards, and these cover a broad range of topics, including the following: “Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”
And a recent experiment by an Indian think-tank revealed that Facebook did not necessarily remove content flagged as objectionable by users, solely on the basis of it being flagged. As Facebook told them: “We reviewed the post you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.” It is quite possible that the newly formed Social Peace Force will feel let down by Facebook as well, if content is not removed immediately. What happens then?
However, this latest development harks back to the problems with India’s current legal mechanisms. India’s IT Act has become infamous for a certain Section 66(A) which can be used to arrest people for information used for the purposes of “annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will”. Public outrage at wrongful arrests led to the courts passing an order that no person would be arrested without “prior approval from an officer not below the rank of inspector general of police”. At the same time, the establishment is not above slapping graver charges (such as inciting communal violence) under other sections of Indian law — including the Indian Penal Code — for fairly innocuous activity. This has lead to some amount of distrust at the government’s own commitment to freedom of expression.
Of course, citizens have a right to appeal to social media platforms if they take offense to any content posted there. The point remains, however, that maintaining communal harmony and law and order is a tricky and layered problem. The role of the state, and the loss of confidence citizens have in it, must be addressed as well. Earlier solutions have included the state governments of Jammu and Kashmir preempting violence by switching off social media and YouTube for a few days, in the wake of burgeoning riots around the world because of the video “The Innocence of Muslims”. At another time, the government of India restricted text messages to five a day to curtail vicious rumours targeting a minority community settled in south India. India’s National Integration Council met in September 2013 after social media posts had been blamed for causing riots in Uttar Pradesh, and many states are setting up social media monitoring departments to raise “red flags”, much like the Social Peace Force itself.
A coherent and honest study of the abuse of social media platforms by fringe groups to incite violence should take place. Given the fast paced nature of the medium, the question for a country as prone to communal riots as India is: how can one control them? Is counter-speech to drown out hate speech a strategy to be employed? Is clamping down on free speech effectively going to reduce religious intolerance? Does bypassing legal routes and going straight to the “source” help? A national dialogue on the matter might be more fruitful in the long run than the flowering of surveillance groups cutting across the board — be they citizen or state-led.