As farmer protests in India made international headlines over the last few weeks, the Indian government has been at war with farmers, with activists, with the media, Rihanna, and now social media giant, Twitter.
Furious over a hashtag which used the word ‘genocide’, the government asked Twitter to take down over 1400 handles.
Initially, Twitter gave in and blocked several handles including those of opposition politicians and a news magazine. Hours later, they restored many of the accounts after sustained outrage but later ended up removing 97% of the accounts requested, as per media reports.
Fundamental right to free expression
However, Twitter did not agree to take down the accounts of politicians and journalists saying it “violates their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law”. Section 69A of the IT Act, 2000 allows the Indian government to block websites or online content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the State”.
Twitter says its going to fight. ”We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve. We are exploring options under Indian law — both for Twitter and for the accounts that have been impacted”, they said in a statement last week.
Tensions between the government and Twitter have got serious enough for ministers and government officials to begin migrating to a desi version of Twitter called Koo. The entire episode meanwhile has exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of both sides in dealing with hate speech and online abuse.
Lets start with the government first. India’s Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told Parliament last week, “We respect social media.
But we will not tolerate the misuse of social media for fake news ... whether it is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WhatsApp or anyone, they are free to work in India, do business, but they need to respect the Indian Constitution, they need to respect the Indian law”.
A line should not be crossed
While this sounds wonderful, it also needs to be uniformly implemented. The “genocide” hashtag used on Twitter for the government’s handling of the farmer protests was deeply problematic and wrong. It crossed a line and should not have been used.
But if the government is serious about dealing with fake news and hate, they also need to look at their own right wing propaganda sites and handles which routinely generate fake news, peddle lies and abuse and circulate hate videos.
Just days ago, a video calling for journalists critical of the government to be “hanged”, was proudly shared on twitter by a number of BJP and RSS functionaries. A hashtag celebrating the video was trending all day on the social media site.
Twitter's spotty record
Twitter too has had an abysmal record in dealing with online abuse and hate in the name of free speech. As a woman and a journalist, I face daily harassment, misogyny, threats and outright hate on social media every day. That’s the story of many of my colleagues too.
To be fair, Twitter has been more proactive in dealing with abusive accounts in recent years but it is not enough. Many have argued for banning anonymous handles altogether. I do however understand the freedom anonymity brings to many people online, who can freely express their views without feeling threatened or encumbered in any way.
But as someone who faces regular abuse online, I am now beginning to think the advantages of ending anonymous handles may outweigh anything else.
But Twitter and Facebook face a bigger challenge. They can’t have one standard at home on hate speech and another depending on which country they operate from.
Last year, Facebook faced a firestorm of criticism after the Wall Street Journal reported how the platform did not ban a BJP politician who had, among things, said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques.
In the face of strong government pressure now, Twitter needs to show what principles it really stands for. It won’t be easy. Twitter’s own transparency report for 2020 shows that 96% of legal requests for content removal came from 5 countries- Japan, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, and India.
Even though ministers and BJP functionaries are moving to Koo, Twitter will still remain a big force given it’s international footprint. The only countries to ban Twitter outright are China, Iran, North Korea and Turkmenistan.
BJP government will push back, especially against its critics. It is for Twitter to now show what its really made of.