India is a nation besieged. It is at war — with social media hashtags.
In November 2020, as tens of thousands of farmers surrounded India’s capital New Delhi, demanding a repeal of three controversial laws that reduce state protection and may allow the entry of big corporations into India’s inefficient farming sector, the government barricaded the city by placing barbed wire and boulders on the city’s “border,” as if it were a frontline shared with an enemy. Most farmers are unhappy with corruption, wastage, and cumbersome procedures that hobble them, but they also want the certainties that a state-guaranteed minimum support price provides. However, they prefer the known devil to an unknown one — of being exposed to the vagaries of market forces and, more pertinently, the power of large corporations who might replace state agencies as the intermediary.
Those are legitimate questions deserving a reasonable debate. But the Indian parliament passed the laws quickly, and now, after more than 10 consecutive weeks of protest in the capital, the government finds itself on the defensive, with not only farmers, but also international celebrities like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Susan Sarandon, as well as Meena Harris, niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, expressing support for the farmers’ right to dissent.
Since the farmers are bypassing India’s broadcast channels, an overwhelming number of which are cloyingly and sycophantically pro-government, they created their own media channels, using social media to reach wide audiences. With activists organizing online and using hashtags to drum up support for their cause, the government responded the only way it knows: by shutting off the internet in the areas where farmers had gathered and compelling social media platforms like Twitter to block certain accounts because they carried inflammatory content, specifically a hashtag, #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide.
Then, on Monday, February 1, some 257 Twitter accounts were invisible in India for a few hours. These included Kisan Ekta Morcha, as the farmers’ coalition is known, an investigative magazine called The Caravan, and other activists and individuals’ accounts.
A predictable uproar followed the account suspensions, and Twitter restored them without clarifying the specific provision that forced it to remove the content. An anonymous source familiar with the situation told the Hindustan Times that the accounts were restored because they were newsworthy. But the government claimed that motivated campaigns were being run to abuse, inflame, and create tension on “unsubstantiated grounds.”
It’s likely that Twitter acquiesced to a legal request from the Indian government. Media watchers believe a body like the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology could have deployed a section of a 20-year-old technology act. The law allows authorities to require an intermediary (such as Twitter) to block access to any information “generated, transmitted, received, stored or hosted in any computer resource,” if it is necessary and expedient to prevent disrupting public order.
Twitter, the government said, cannot sit as an appellate authority about potential impact on public order. As an intermediary, it must comply with the Indian law, failing which, consequences will follow, the statement added. It has asked the company to obey or else face prosecution and penalties, which could go up to seven years’ imprisonment.
Such heavy-handedness is not unique to India. In Myanmar, as the military staged a coup, one of its first acts was to shut down Facebook and, later, Twitter and Instagram. In Turkey, the government is engaged in a battle with social media platforms over what it describes as normalizing same-sex relationships. (Twitter restricted a homophobic tweet by a Turkish minister.) And that’s just in the last week: in its transparency reports, Twitter says it has received 12,657 government information requests in the first six months of 2020, a 44% increase to the previous reporting period.
To be sure, hashtags do inspire violence. The kind of hashtags popular on Twitter in India, some that India’s loud and intemperate cable networks have used, would make Fox News squirm. Vilifying Muslims for undermining Indian unity or spreading the pandemic, luring Hindu women and tricking them into marriage and converting them, and describing government critics as anti-national agents of enemies are only some of the themes in the many hashtags popularized on the Internet in recent years. The Indian constitution imposes several restrictions on freedom of expression, including speech that could affect relations with neighboring countries, hatred within communities, religious sensibilities, decency, and morality. And yet, hashtags that could incite violence, as well as tweets by pro-government figures that spread hate, are neither banned, nor their creators prosecuted.
The power social media companies have over the content they carry is undeniable. Using the latitude granted to them by American law, they insist they are mere carriers, while retaining the right to control what’s said and what isn’t on their platforms. Facebook and Twitter have permitted hate speech to flourish in countries far from their American headquarters — think Sri Lanka — and acted with surprising alacrity in switching off the microphone of the man who was, at that time, the most powerful world leader, former President Donald Trump. There is an arbitrariness to the process, which is good for neither those being denied freedom nor those offended by the exercise of those freedoms.
Relying on governments to regulate speech poses dangers — governments across the world have misused those powers to curb dissent. Trusting companies to do the right thing is also naïve. Companies want sustained engagement. Removing contentious content would reduce traffic, diminishing the companies’ ability to monetize the users’ attention. However, while the companies claim to ensure that illegal content is not carried on their platforms, they apply those standards differently in different circumstances, often relying on people with limited awareness or training or those who may have inherent biases or, worse, trusting automated systems, all of which make social media debates lopsided and imperfect. As the internet fragments, companies are going to find it more and more problematic addressing government requests like the ones we saw last week in India.
The Indian government has a more urgent problem: how to stop the viral spread of messaging that contradicts its version of truth, its assertions and claims— that which conflicts with its perspective or ridicules its policies. It has wheeled out cricketers and movie stars, influencers that resonate within India but aren’t effective elsewhere, especially in North America. If the Modi administration were to begin a serious effort to listen to its critics, at home and abroad, and initiate a dialogue, it may regain some respect, but that would be uncharacteristic of it.
The cornerstone of Modi’s policies in recent months has been the idea of becoming atmanirbhar, a Sanskritized Hindi word, which means being self-reliant. When Chinese troops made incursions into disputed territory on the Indian border, instead of authorizing troops to respond robustly, Modi banned hundreds of Chinese apps, including TikTok, hoping that it would deal a financial blow to the Chinese state. It has deprived millions of young Indians of harmless entertainment; whether it has affected the Chinese economy is not known, although the company claims to be losing $500,000 a day as a result of the ban.
The danger is that Modi will draw another lesson from China, of turning the internet into an intranet — creating a Weibo-like alternative to Twitter and perhaps other social media platforms, to take on Facebook and others.
India already leads the world in shutting down the internet, and it also demands more content to be taken down from the internet than most other countries. Creating a controllable, domestic intranet may make the government feel more secure, but it would be at a huge cost, adversely impacting India’s economy as well as its global reputation: a Pyrrhic victory.
According to TechCrunch, Twitter has 75 million users in India and is the most important online forum for people expressing themselves. The weapon the BJP used so effectively in its rise to power is the same social media platform that it is now trying so hard to control.
The tragic irony is that the same platforms are being used by the BJP’s critics and opponents. Modi’s predicament is similar to Trump’s: both used social media as the megaphone to amplify their message. Trump no longer has the capability; Modi does. He has defied many odds in his rise to power. Whether he can make India atmanirbhar with its own internet, is a question beyond politics, for it will also determine the trajectory of a global economic powerhouse integrated with the rest of the world.