India is silencing its critics on Fb and Twitter through the pandemic
As the coronavirus pandemic rages across India, killing thousands, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government better manage the public health crisis. And now the government is silencing those critics in their latest threat to the future of free speech online in the world’s second largest country.
In the past few weeks, the Indian government has urged companies like Twitter to remove content that allegedly contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. However, critics say India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the misinformation premise to spill over and suppress criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
A similar debate has raged in the US about how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate malicious language on their platforms, especially when this speech is from world leaders. But the issue has grown in intensity in India, where the government is more aggressive and direct pressure on tech companies to block content they are having trouble with.
“Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a tough place,” said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on regulating online international language. “You are facing a government that accuses you of essentially facilitating a violation of the law. At the same time, there are major concerns about freedom of expression. ”
India is the largest democracy in the world and has a history of robust political debates. Its constitution protects people’s right to freedom of expression – with a few exceptions, including what it deems defamatory.
But under the Modi administration in recent years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and monitor its citizens online. The government has several levers to put pressure on US tech companies: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter employees in India if their employers don’t follow instructions. Additionally, India could completely remove Twitter or Facebook from the local internet in India, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 as it sought to alleviate political disagreements in the region.
Now tension between U.S. social media companies and the Indian government has reached an all-time high due to the heated debate surrounding Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have equal access to a relatively open social media environment or whether the walls will tighten even more around what people in India are allowed to say online. Some fear the country will become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents’ access to information and where US tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried – and failed – to operate successfully.
What happened to the recent shutdowns?
In the past few days, Twitter and Facebook have removed or blocked political content criticizing the Indian government.
On Wednesday, Facebook confirmed that it had temporarily blocked posts with a #DesignModi hashtag in India, but later said it was a bug due to content associated with the hashtag that violated its guidelines. Facebook has since regained access to the hashtag.
Facebook declined to comment on how many or what purchase requests it has received from the Government of India in the past few weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook removed only a small fraction of the total requests it received.
In sharp contrast to Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and reveals requests for deactivation by an external organization, Lumen. Twitter admitted that the Indian government recently asked to remove several dozen tweets dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as reported by Indian news site MediaNama.
Recode reviewed the 50+ tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Government of India in the past few weeks. While some might be viewed as misleading – including a viral image showing devastation in India allegedly related to the pandemic, which Indian fact-checker AltNews was calling out of date – it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts that appeared to be simple news and political commentary.
For example, one of the blocked tweets is a link to a vice news article about a Hindu religious mass bath held in the Ganges during the recent surge in Covid-19 – which is also widespread in other outlets. Another is a satirical cartoon that features a caricature by Modi giving a speech about burning coffins. The Prime Minister says: “I have never seen such large crowds at a rally.”
The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which directs acceptance requests to social media companies on behalf of the Indian government, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Modi’s BJP party also did not respond to a request for comment.
In response to Recode’s questions about how Twitter decides which posts to block or remove, a Twitter spokesperson emailed Recode with the following explanation:
When we receive a valid legal request, we will review it according to both Twitter rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is found to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but not in violation of Twitter rules, we can only deny access to the content in India.
The company also said it had notified account holders directly if they were given a jurisdiction regarding their account.
Many free speech advocates are quick to accuse social media companies like Twitter of giving in to pressure from the Indian government too easily. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance towards the Modi government – for example, in February when it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government’s new agricultural reforms, which many Farmers in India had protested for months.
During the pandemic, companies like Twitter are being retested to determine their willingness to follow orders from the Indian government – and run the risk of being shut down entirely if they disobey them.
“It’s easy for us to say that Twitter shouldn’t do this. The question, however, is whether the company will continue to operate in the Indian market, ”said Chander. “It’s a very complicated dance.”
One avenue US social media companies could take is to try to challenge recent government purchase orders in Indian courts, which Chander says are relatively independent of Modi.
The U.S. government, which has a close relationship with India, could also pressure the Modi government to ease its hold on social media. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Indian government calling on social media companies to block out anti-government agencies “is certainly inconsistent with our view of freedom of expression around the world”.
The White House has other diplomatic levers it could use, such as threats to cut off trade deals or other diplomatic ties between the two countries. Right now the White House is focusing on the bigger problem of vaccine distribution in India. This week, under increasing global pressure, the government announced to reverse course and export Covid-19 vaccines to the country. So far, there has been no public evidence that the Biden government is considering diplomatic action regarding the country’s stance on social media.
Regardless, it is clear that there is a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country looks like.