Last week, a familiar image appeared on the local news in India: a police raid, with a reporter standing in front of a group of Delhi’s Special Cell police, a unit typically responsible for busting gangs and other black market operations. But the police force wasn’t busting up a seedy underground gang spot — they were paying a visit to Twitter’s offices in the Indian capital.
The police visit came after Twitter labeled a tweet from the national spokesperson of the ruling party as “manipulated media,” a policy adopted in February 2020 to alert the platform’s users of “significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated” media. The Delhi police, who had served Twitter a notice to remove the label the week prior, were ostensibly knocking on Twitter’s door to investigate the matter.
While the police found empty offices — Twitter’s employees in India are working from home due to pandemic restrictions — the “raid” marked a low point in a marked deterioration in relations between Twitter and India’s ruling party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Once a favorite tool to rally public support for BJP, Twitter has increasingly become a thorn in the side of Modi’s administration: In the last three years, it has become a place to voice opposition against his policies, and Twitter’s reluctance to cede to government requests for “takedowns” and suspensions has put the Silicon Valley platform in the crosshairs. But for many who have watched Twitter’s trajectory in India, the dramatic raid last week begs the question: How did things get so bad?
“India has won”
In 2014, Modi announced his first election victory on Twitter before anywhere else. “India has won!” he tweeted, in a post that became the most retweeted tweet in India at the time. His victory marked a win for the platform too: Twitter used the election as an opportunity to reach out to all political parties in an effort to bring the world’s largest democracy onto the platform. Modi, though, embraced it more than most — with 8.5 million followers in 2014, he had the highest Twitter following of any candidate in the election. Once in power, his government collaborated with Twitter on multiple products, like Twitter Seva, an e-governance platform that allowed Indian citizens to request assistance from government ministries through Twitter mentions. It was a deft maneuver, integrating Twitter directly into India’s government policy.
“The core advocate of this product was the Prime Minister’s Office,” said Raheel Khursheed, a journalist who was the head of Twitter India’s news, politics, and government from 2014 to 2018. “They were really big advocates of the work we did.”
But early in Modi’s term, the BJP began to use Twitter as a platform for manipulation and trolling. Kiran Jonnalagadda, a digital rights activist and co-founder of technology event company Hasgeek, cites Modi’s push towards demonetization as one of the first instances that a government policy was hotly debated on the platform. “I suspect the polarization went mainstream at the time, but had been building up for a while,” he said. As Indians across the country struggled to withdraw their own money in the wake of the sudden policy change, images of long lines outside of banks went viral online. It sent Modi’s response online into overdrive, emphasizing how the adoption of digital currencies would stamp out corruption.
Modi’s digital army
By 2018, when Jack Dorsey visited India as Twitter CEO for the first time, the platform had become a hotbed for right-wing trolls and misinformation. The BJP’s social media team, called the “IT Cell,” had been accused of orchestrating highly-coordinated attacks against detractors of Modi. The former founder of the IT Cell told HuffPost India that it had become a “Frankenstein monster.” Research by the BBC cited a rising tide of right-wing nationalism as the driving force behind much of the misinformation in the country, with “an overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
In the meantime, Twitter’s user base was expanding significantly: By 2018, India clocked some 30 million Twitter users, among the highest of any country on the platform. The platform’s mass appeal brought a growing number of controversies and debates online: the #MeToo movement, a Supreme Court dispute, backlash against a new tax regime, regional elections.
As the platform’s user base grew, so too did instances of trolling and harassment against women online.
BJP “cyber troops”— trolls who work to promote the government’s image online — began wielding online abuse and threats as a weapon against outspoken female journalists. “I’ve been called a prostitute and an escort girl. My face has been superimposed on a naked body and my mother’s photograph has been taken from my Instagram account and photoshopped in the most objectionable manner possible,” said one prominent female journalist about her experience on Twitter. At that time, online harassment victims told BuzzFeed News that Twitter’s response to the abuse was “apathetic.”
Dorsey’s visit itself put the platform under public scrutiny. The CEO met with the prime minister wearing sneakers and a hoodie, and crossed his legs in a way that many consider culturally disrespectful in India. Then, Dorsey was photographed holding a sign emblazoned with the words, “SMASH BRAHMANICAL PATRIARCHY!” — a message aimed at dismantling the Hindu caste system, which reveres Brahmins above all other castes. The backlash was swift, and Twitter’s PR team was quick to distance itself from the message of the poster. Dorsey attended a silent retreat in Myanmar shortly after.
The takedown cycle
When Modi secured his second term as prime minister in 2019, Twitter struggled to maintain free speech principles while complying with India’s growing requests to remove tweets. In August that year, the BJP-ruled government revoked the special status of Kashmir, a disputed territory on its border with Pakistan. The move sparked unrest, and a prolonged internet blackout in the region. A steep rise in government requests to block accounts on Twitter came in its wake. Twitter complied with some of the requests, but left other accounts untouched. For supporters of the takedowns, it wasn’t enough; for activists, the suspended accounts seemed to be proof of Twitter’s collusion with Modi’s government.
It was the first of several such cycles in the years to come: Indian authorities would demand takedowns, and Twitter would comply with some, only to face backlash from both supporters and critics of Modi’s government. For the Silicon Valley platform, each of Modi’s political battles has become a quagmire for its standing in India. The back-and-forth “leaves a sense of confusion and wonder about why our own government… may be failing to fulfill its obligations when strangers who trade in our data for profit are seemingly more eager,” wrote the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation Apar Gupta in a February column.
Earlier this year, a mass protest movement against new agricultural policies renewed criticism of Modi’s regime. Global celebrities like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg tweeted in support of the movement known as the Farmers’ Protest; the Modi government responded with hundreds of takedown orders to Twitter. The platform initially resisted, but later complied with many of the requests and blocked some 500 accounts permanently. India’s IT minister said Twitter only complied “unwillingly, grudgingly, and with great delay” to its orders.
A new normal
By the time Delhi police raided Twitter’s offices last week, legal requests against the platform had become the norm. According to Twitter’s own metrics, there has been a steep increase in information requests — formal queries requesting account details — from Indian authorities: nearly double in the first half of 2020 than the entire year of 2019. In February, the Indian government introduced strict social media regulations that require platforms to appoint compliance officers and submit monthly reports to authorities there. WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the ruling.
With unprecedented deaths and the country’s public health system on the brink of collapse, Indian authorities are once again on the defense against criticism online, and the raid on Twitter’s offices has made clear just how important online narratives are for the ruling party. In a statement, Twitter said the police visits were “intimidation tactics,” and that the new social media rules “inhibit free, open public conversation.”
In an emailed statement to Rest of World, a Twitter spokesperson said, “We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”
“What’s happening in India right now is the most important battle for the future of freedom of expression online,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies the global regulation of online speech. “In a moment where platforms are increasingly unpopular and sort of seen as not having principles, it’s a very high-profile example of how Twitter is still prepared to take a principled stance.”
Twitter’s ability to give India’s opposition voices a platform comes as its ranking on the World Press Freedom Index fell to 142 of 180 countries. In India’s tightening media environment, Twitter’s standing has put the platform in a precarious position, as it does in many countries facing similar environments. “Making these companies arbiters of free speech might not be a perfect solution,” said Sergey Sanovich, a researcher at Princeton University who studies censorship in authoritarian regimes. But Sanovich says leaving it to courts in countries like Russia, where an official might sway a judge, is “certainly even worse.”
For Khursheed, who worked with Twitter to build its e-governance tool, the platform’s current footing in India stands in stark contrast to how it was once received. Where Twitter was once a partner to the government in development, he says, it’s now about controlling the narrative.