After the Republic Day rampage that marred the more than two-month long protest of farmers, government has come down heavily on use of social media platforms and the internet itself by farmers and others calling for a check on abuse of twitter, facebook, whatsapp and other platforms to prevent violence and spread of ‘false’ information and to maintain law and order.
Internet was suspended in many places where farmers have been holding sit-in protests. The heavy barricading of protest sites and suspension of internet drew attention of several international personalities who stood in “support” of farmers through their tweets. The flurry of tweets by people with a massive fan following in support of farmers’ agitation were seen by the ruling government as an attack on its image or rather as an attack on India itself. The government has even pulled up Twitter and warned of taking criminal action if Twitter did not block thousands of accounts that were said to be spreading misinformation.
So what twitter handles and hashtag trends was/is the government against? The government wants twitter to shut thousands of handles that are a “grave threat to public order”. These twitter accounts are linked to the continuing farmers’ protest or have made several tweets or retweets on demonstrations against new agriculture laws. The government asked Twitter to remove tweets that used an incendiary hashtag, and accounts allegedly used by Sikh separatist groups and “backed by Pakistan”.
Twitter first blocked some 250 accounts in response to a legal notice by the government, citing objections based on public order. These included accounts of an investigative news magazine and activists and outfits associated with supporting the months-long protests on the outskirts of Delhi. Then, six hours later, Twitter restored the accounts, citing “insufficient justification” for continuing the suspension.
Twitter said it blocked some accounts in India over comments on farmers’ protests in New Delhi but the social media giant refused to shut down others saying it did “not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law”. “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”. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.”
Government is definitely not impressed by the actions of Twitter and has threatened “action” against social media platforms and their employees if these platforms were “misused to spread fake news and violence”. “You have millions of followers in India, you are free to do business and make money, but you will have to follow the Indian constitution,” I.T Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, said, naming a number of sites, including Facebook and Twitter.
Misuse of social media platforms to spread wrong information, hate and violence has been continuing in India for quite some time. While political leaders have used social media to the hilt during poll campaigns the platform has similarly been used to spread hateful speeches and messages. Recently Facebook has been in the dock for its political bias and its handling of hate speech posts by BJP leaders.
Now where Twitter has shown neutrality by removing harmful hashtags and handles and by preserving others over freedom of speech does the government’s threat for penal action mean it wants to silence protesters or make Twitter fall in line with facebook by adopting a pro-government public policy?
The government has also taken to an India microblogging app called Koo to respond to Twitter. A number of BJP supporters, ministers and officials have opened accounts on this year-old Twitter clone.
Twitter wants to continue “to advocate for the right of free expression” and are exploring options under Indian law it said.