How India’s Government is Weaponizing Twitter

On January 26, Navreet Singh, a twenty-five-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh, in the north of India, hopped on a blue tractor and accelerated toward a police barricade erected in the middle of the street. It was supposed to be a celebratory day for India—the seventy-second anniversary of India’s democratic constitution—but instead, tens of thousands of farmers like Singh had shown up in the heart of New Delhi to protest Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s latest farm laws, which they saw as favoring private corporations over their interests. Moments later, Singh was dead.

Caravan, a small but daring Indian newsmagazine, tweeted from the scene: the Delhi Police shot Singh with live bullets, according to eyewitnesses. The magazine had dispatched four of its reporters, two of whom filmed Singh’s corpse, which had been draped in an Indian flag and was now surrounded by Singh’s fellow farmers, who knelt and prayed. Caravan’s reporters filmed some of the farmers as they described the aftermath. “Eyewitnesses said they saw police personnel fleeing from the spot after Navreet was shot,” Caravan tweeted. “A police official at the spot (name withheld) later said that his colleague ‘ran away out of fear.’ ” Then, they added, “A response from the Delhi Police is awaited. We will update this thread once it is received.” The Delhi Police, who report directly to Modi’s central government, were outraged. They quickly disputed the narrative, claiming Singh’s death was caused by his tractor colliding with a police barricade and flipping upside down, crushing his face.

Over the course of the next few days, a heated national conversation took shape around the circumstances of Singh’s death. The Times of India, the country’s largest newspaper, reported that Singh died as he “tried to charge at Delhi Police.” Many other mainstream outlets did the same. The Guardian, on the other hand, reported that a prominent British forensic expert who had examined the postmortem report determined the cause of Singh’s death to be a “gunshot wound, possibly two.” The Wire, an Indian digital newspaper known for its independent coverage, published graphic images of Singh’s corpse, noting two laceration wounds, above his chin and ear, consistent with far-ranging bullets. 

Just as Caravan was preparing its own follow-up, editors received a notice from the Delhi Police: “Due to misleading and false information by The Caravan that a farmer protestor has died due to police firing,” it read, “a case has been registered in IP Estate police station.” By the next morning, nine other cases had been filed in five courts across the country: against Caravan’s executive editor, Vinod K. Jose; its publishers, Paresh and Anant Nath; and a handful of others, including a prominent opposition politician and a famous actor. The group was being charged with “sedition,” a colonial-era law that could, in its harshest infliction, lead to life imprisonment.

Even though the sedition charge was new to Caravan’s editors, they regularly face harassment and threats from the government for investigating some of the country’s wealthiest and most powerful figures. As I reported last year, Caravan is one of the few remaining media outlets in India that has refused to fall under the sway of the government or its acolytes. (I interned at the magazine in 2014.) It has garnered a reputation as a national disrupter, known for publishing hard-hitting investigations into the Modi government at a time when much of the mainstream Indian media, which depend on government advertisements, has become a loudspeaker for the administration. Unsurprisingly, Caravan has become the target of countless defamation lawsuits, threats, and online bullying, mostly from right-wing Hindu nationalists loyal to Modi. In 2014, after the magazine published an explosive cover story about the RSS, the Hindu nationalist organization seen as the parent organization to Modi’s party, a mob from the RSS surrounded the Caravan office in New Delhi and angrily set fire to copies of the issue on the street outside. After covering the most recent violence at the farmers’ protest, one of Caravan’s regular contributors, Mandeep Punia, was manhandled and arrested by the Delhi Police. He spent three nights in jail. So for Jose, being called into court was not surprising: it was simply a part of the job.

What did come as a surprise to the magazine’s editors, however, was when, without warning, Twitter took down Caravan’s account. “We didn’t receive any notice beforehand,” Jose told me. “It looked like it was part of the design of a targeted attack on Caravan.” An hour after the account—which boasts some three hundred thousand followers—disappeared, Jose received an email from Twitter India. “In the interest of transparency,” the letter read, “we are writing to inform you that Twitter has received a legal removal demand regarding your Twitter account.” The email added that Caravan’s account “violates the law(s) of India.” 

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The ban was part of a larger suppression effort to block accounts that cast the government’s handling of the farmers’ protest in a negative light. In addition to Caravan’s account, Twitter blocked more than two hundred and fifty others, some of which the government claimed were using the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmersGenocide to incite violence. (Caravan never used the hashtag.) According to the sedition case registered against Caravan, its tweet from January 26 had broadcast “malicious social media propaganda undertaken by vested interests” that could “lead to creating turmoil and havoc in the minds of the public who are already infected with fear.”

That Twitter would shut down certain accounts for spreading misinformation or inciting violence might sound familiar to Americans, who saw the same logic invoked when it banned the accounts of thousands, including former president Donald Trump, after the Capitol Hill insurrection on January 6. Some civil liberties activists, including Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, worried that outlawing bad actors from Twitter was not only a violation of First Amendment rights, but that it could be used against legitimate domestic protest in the future. “Having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications,” Dorsey wrote. “Having to take these actions fragment the public conversation. They divide us. They limit the potential for clarification, redemption, and learning. And sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”

In the immediate future, though, that precedent is likely to pose a greater threat in a country like India, where a government under the sway of right-wing nationalist leaders could weaponize Twitter to crack down on the free press. Central to this problem is the question of whether Twitter has created a double standard: while in the West Twitter is being used to silence populist, right-wing leaders like Trump, in countries like India it’s being deployed by an authoritarian government to suppress its critics. “Can you imagine Twitter summarily yanking the account of The New Yorker or The Atlantic following a legal letter?” Nicholas Dawes, the former head of Human Rights Watch, tweeted. “Applying human rights based standards for content moderation at global scale may be hard, but it’s the job they signed up for.”

Twitter seems to have realized its mistake. Following a public outcry, the site restored the accounts just twelve hours after taking them down. “We strongly believe that the open and free exchange of information has a positive global impact,” a Twitter spokesperson told me. But how does Twitter prevent the new standard it set following the Capitol Hill riots from being exploited in countries where it has already opened the door to government influence? And who gets to decide what constitutes “misinformation,” especially in countries where governments have moved to control most of the media? 

 

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME the Indian government has tried to suppress information. The government regularly imposes internet blackouts during peaceful large-scale protests—a move condemned by internet rights groups, and a violation of international human rights law. In 2018, in an effort to suppress Kashmiri journalists, the Indian government forced Twitter to shut down the account of the Kashmir Narrator, claiming that the magazine had broken Indian law by publishing a cover story on a Kashmiri “militant.” Twitter complied, while Indian police arrested the journalist, Aasif Sultan, who remains in prison. A year later, in 2019, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology ordered that all online news, social media, and video streaming platforms were subject to state regulation. 

In other cases, censorship has taken the form of online bullying and defamation lawsuits, or has worked directly through publishing houses. In 2014 there was a successful campaign, led by the RSS, to ban a Hindu history book by University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger. Last year the Indian government shut down Media One, a national television station, for forty-eight hours as punishment for coverage of mob attacks on Muslims in New Delhi that was critical of police and the RSS. When covid-19 first hit India, Modi called in the country’s top news executives and urged them to publish “inspiring and positive stories,” reminding the media that their duty was to be a “link between the government and the people.”

Still, the government’s move to strong-arm Twitter, which has some seventy-five million users in India, is one of the most brazen and public displays of censorship seen under Modi. Nor does it seem like the Indian government will be backing down anytime soon. Just one day after Twitter reinstated the blocked accounts, India’s Minister of Electronics and Information Technology responded by sending a legal notice to Twitter for breaching its agreement; it demanded that Twitter re-block the requested accounts. The letter warned of the consequences “of non-compliance” and reminded Twitter that, in India, it served as “an intermediary bound by the orders of the Central Government.” If Twitter refused to comply, the government threatened to take action that, under India’s information technology laws, could range from a fine to up to seven years in jail for Twitter executives.

Before Twitter had a chance to respond, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology sent the company a fresh batch of twelve hundred Twitter accounts it wanted blocked. The accounts, the government claimed, were “backed by Pakistan.” Twitter blocked some of the accounts, but not all, in a standoff that has now received global attention. “We do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law,” Twitter announced in a public statement on February 10. “We have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians. To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.”

Soon after, government officials began urging their hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers to boycott the site and join Koo—an Indian-bred platform offering Indian languages like Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, and Bengali, which the government will likely have a more powerful hand in controlling. Thousands have already flocked to the site—an exodus bolstered, ironically, when #Koo began trending on Twitter. But the government’s battle with Twitter is far from over. After a brief virtual meeting between Twitter’s top executives and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the matter is going to be settled at the highest level of Indian jurisprudence: the Supreme Court, which will decide, ultimately, what constitutes “freedom of expression” in India.

If the Indian government wins the case, it is pretty clear what kind of speech it will encourage: with critics frozen out, supporters of the government and its allies in the RSS would have even freer rein than they do now. Around the time that Caravan’s account was blocked, a new hashtag driven primarily by the RSS was trending: #NathuramGodse. Godse is the killer of India’s spiritual founder, Mahatma Gandhi, who peacefully advocated during India’s bloody Partition for the country to become a secular, pluralistic democracy. “Here is the murderer of Gandhi being glorified,” Jose said to me. “And Twitter is doing nothing to stop it.”  

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Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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