Twitter is in a predicament in India. It is caught between the demands of an increasingly authoritarian government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a global outcry – spurred by tweets from singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg – to protect the tens of thousands of farmers who have gathered in Delhi to protest new agricultural laws.
As it wrestles with what to do under intense scrutiny, journalists and activists have been among those caught up in the standoff.
The Caravan, a prestigious magazine that publishes confrontational, longform journalism reflects its predicament.
Just one week after Twitter censored the Caravan’s accounts at the Indian Government’s request, the magazine received a prestigious award from Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, that praised its “unique and uncompromising coverage of the erosion of human rights, social justice, and democracy.”
The standoff grew as worldwide interest intensified. Twitter issued a statement on February 10 saying it had banned those who violated its rules but only “temporarily complied” with the Indian Government’s specific requests for bans, later restoring those accounts.
It added it restricted some accounts but only within India.
“In keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” Twitter said.
Caravan’s executive editor Vinod Jose told Insider that the block, which stopped people in India accessing its Hindi and English language accounts, felt “targeted” as the publication has aggressively criticized the government.
But he said he was surprised that Twitter had briefly complied given it had permanently deleted Donald Trump’s account for inciting the Capitol Hill riots three weeks earlier.
“My first thought was they could stand up to the president of their country but were getting bullied here,” he added.
He added the ban helped generate publicity for the magazine, which has since launched a subscription drive fronted by Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy.
As well as requesting Twitter bans, the Indian authorities have also moved against prominent voices because of their tweets.
On January 30, Jose and six other journalists, including top news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, had complaints filed against them accusing them of criminal sedition for tweeting about the alleged fatal shooting of a protestor, whose death was later revealed to have been an accident.
This was not an isolated incident. A freelance journalist spent a month in jail last year over a tweet that authorities said had disrupted communal harmony. On February 15, police charged a 22-year-old climate activist with sedition for circulating a toolkit that Thunberg had tweeted.
Inji Pennu, a Kerala-born tech blogger who lives in Florida and monitors social media trends in India, told Insider it would be a “privilege” for anyone to “post on a social media platform and escape without having a complaint slapped against you.”
Political commentator Sanjukta Basu also had her Twitter targeted on February 1, when she woke up to see her account was invisible inside India. She told Insider she initially thought a tweet about the arrest of a stand up comic must have prompted it.
But she deduced from media reports that her account was blocked because she had used the hashtag #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, that spread the false claim Modi was planning mass murder.
Basu told Insider her tweet didn’t endorse the claim but was “examining Twitter’s illogical trends and had listed some trending hashtags.”
She believed her vocal criticism of Modi’s government had prompted the ban. After her account was restored, she tweeted about the surge in followers she had, saying: “More they bully you, more you grow.”
Asked how the episode left her feeling about Twitter, she said: “They stood up to the Indian government because of a regime change in the US. It doesn’t want to be seen siding with an authoritarian government in a developing country.”
Raheel Khurseed, a journalist who was Twitter India’s head of Politics, Policy and Government from 2014 to 2018, agreed Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump meant there was now a US President who was “ideologically more aligned with Twitter’s position on free speech”.
“The fact that [the Biden administration] would want to hold the same standards elsewhere in the world gives Twitter some amount of immunity as it tries to apply the same standards elsewhere in the world,” he told Insider.
After Twitter’s public statement of defiance, Ravi Shankar, the justice and technology minister, told India’s parliament that laws would be tightened to make social media companies more compliant. “We will not tolerate the misuse of social media for fake news,” he said.
“I politely remind the companies, 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.”
Twitter reportedly met with Indian Government officials earlier this month and had taken down 97% of the accounts authorities had requested.
The Indian Express reported it told authorities it would restructure its India team so there were more senior managers in the country to handle compliance issues.
Khurseed said it was an “interesting moment in Twitter’s journey in India”.
“The government, of course, has its own ideas about how these platforms need to run and whether they implement that on a policy level,” he said, adding it “remains to be seen” what will change.
He said Twitter might make new appointments and restructure its team but added there were discussions since his time there working about “making policy teams immune to government interference”.
He added: “I think this is the right time to restart those conversations.”
Twitter declined to comment, referring Insider to its February 10 statement.
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