The clash between the Indian government and Twitter has once again exposed contradictions and double standards on both sides.
The Centre has threatened to take legal action against Twitter, accusing it of bias in its resistance to taking down pro-farmers’ protest accounts that New Delhi claims could have caused a law and order problem. Information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad likened the events at the Red Fort on January 26 to the violent assault on Capitol Hill by an armed mob just weeks earlier.
At the time of the Capitol Hill attack, the US’s incoming President Joe Biden declared it an insurrection against democracy. Twitter sparked global debate by suspending several handles, including sitting president Donald Trump’s, for posting videos and comments sharing support for the mob engaged in the assault, and the conspiratorial rationale behind it, and violating its user guidelines by having virtually incited acts of real-world violence.
In India, Twitter has argued that it blocked many accounts on the government’s request but refused to block several others that were consistent with the company’s free speech policies, though intensely critical of the Modi government’s handling of the farmers’ protests.
Here lies the heart of the matter that has vexed relations between governments and social media platforms. As American companies, platforms like Twitter or Facebook have often taken cover under the First Amendment of the US Constitution ― the broad umbrella that ensures absolute protection for speech, unlike India’s Article 19(2), which imposes reasonable restrictions on speech that may incite violence or discriminate against individuals or groups based on protected characteristics such as faith, caste or gender, or speech that is deemed to be against the spirit of unity and integrity of the country.
In the former, discriminatory speech is self-evident, while in the latter, restrictions have been misused and abused time and again by successive governments to silence critics.
Regulating Big Tech
This time is no exception. But in 2021, Twitter is not like supine Indian media. And this clash of jurisdictions was only to be expected. Now, Ravi Shankar Prasad has gone to the extent of saying in parliament that he will propose amendments to the Indian law to rein in social media platforms. But in Biden’s presidency, this could also mean greater US involvement in a larger dispute over jurisdiction which US companies operate under globally.
This is not the first time the BJP lawmakers have tried to exert control over social media platforms, even though in the Indian context both Twitter and Facebook have been slippery when it comes to reining in right-wing hate speech spread by the BJP’s infamous IT cell and its army of supporters and paid trolls. Before the 2019 election, BJP MP Anurag Thakur, as chairman of the parliamentary panel on information technology, summoned Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to answer charges of what the BJP government claimed then was a ‘liberal’ bias that drowns out right-wing voices.
With about 350 million active users globally ‒ a fraction of Facebook’s base ‒ why is the Indian government repeatedly rattled by Twitter? The answer lies not in the numbers, but in politics. For its size, Twitter punches well above its weight. Unlike its contemporaries, Twitter’s significantly smaller user base seems much more engaged on issues that dominate the news cycle in a public space. Global leaders, presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and strongmen alike engage directly with users, and sometimes with each other too via tweets, bypassing the entire ecosystem of official communications, press conferences and statements in the mass news media. They make news and often set the agenda for nightly debates on television in India in under 280 characters every day. Twitter’s ability to influence news agendas and mobilise support or dissent (whichever way you look at it), in spite of its size, seems formidable globally.
Frankly, so far neither Twitter nor Facebook have evolved standard policies, or even an adequate infrastructure, to quickly identify content that can suddenly generate hate and lead to individual or mob violence. The manner in which social media platforms hurried to ban Donald Trump after the Capitol Hill violence exposed their fickle behaviour. French President Macron said the same social media platforms which helped “Trump be so efficient” suddenly “cut off the mike” after it was clear that he had lost power. Macron’s statement struck at the heart of the platform’s double standards, governed not just by their sometimes malleable guidelines, but by business compulsions, especially in countries that offer big markets and revenues.
The Government of India’s double standard is also on display, given its past collaborations with social media platforms when it suited them. Internal communications of senior Facebook officials exposed in recent years clearly showed that the platform had helped the BJP regularly in running ideologically motivated election campaigns bordering on hate. Provocative content of BJP leaders in India was allowed to circulate without censure, because of business interests. Such actions and past precedents are conveniently sidelined or ignored by the Modi government and its ministers as they wage a daily battle of perception with regard to social media bias.
Likening the Capitol Hill violence to events at the Red Fort on Republic Day is like comparing apples and oranges. In the US, the FBI has identified right-wing extremism and domestic terrorism as the single biggest national security threat in 2021 and is gathering evidence of a concerted attempt to mobilise a mob towards just one goal ― of overthrowing an election and challenging the US constitution. In India’s case, the protests are about the impact new agricultural laws will have on the livelihoods of farmers, who have for the most part protested spontaneously and peacefully across the country since last November, and have expressed no intention of illegally forcing “regime change.”
Yet, the establishment’s attack on Twitter at a time when it is bearing down heavily on other domestic media organisations solidifies the impression that the government wants a firmer and harsher grip on the overall narrative after the prolonged farmers’ protests, which have taken on a life of their own, especially after the Twitter interventions of celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg. The pressure on the Indian government to reclaim its position was evident in the Ministry of External Affairs’ unprecedented official reaction to celebrities, which confirmed that the government knows well that wars waged on Twitter have to be won on Twitter. It even supplied its own ‘toolkit’ of hashtags like #IndiaAgainstPropaganda to do so.
Officially, the Indian government’s main objection against Twitter was about the virality with which provocative hashtags and automated bots suggesting “genocide against farmers” spread across the platform. Though this concern is legitimate and the government may have been justified in raising it with Twitter, what has really worried Prime Minister Modi is the genuine global support for protesting farmers, from celebrities and legislators from across the Western world. A case against Twitter, which Prasad proposes, will no doubt add to the chilling effect being created in the broader media space. “Will Twitter officials in India go to jail,” is a question many were asking, when the government announced it would file a case against the platform in India.
One doesn’t know how the current face-off between the Modi government and Twitter will resolve the clash of legal jurisdictions. After all, India is not China and cannot afford to ban social platforms ― especially those which the prime minister himself uses with great efficiency and eagerness.
Globally, governments are seeking much stronger regulation of social media platforms. Recent communications from the European Union to US President Biden seeking common rules to rein in the power of Big Tech is evidence that under his administration, these conversations will progress. The political class wants to regulate Big Tech but is also open to doing deals with them to maintain some control over citizens. This interaction will become more complex in future as the influence of Big Tech grows by leaps and bounds.
In this context, a serious legal dispute between the Indian government and Twitter on the issue of free speech could well become the catalyst around which such regulations can be debated. The outcome of this spat will likely set a benchmark on how clashing legal jurisdictions among democracies can coexist with the right of citizens to criticise, oppose and dissent without necessarily provoking hate or violence. This exercise will be complex and tricky, and could determine India’s democratic credentials under this regime.
Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor, Media Studies, Ashoka University and senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation. M.K. Venu is the founding editor of The Wire.