Amid the ongoing farmers’ protests in India, a festering dispute between Twitter and the Narendra Modi government is oscillating between uneasy truce and open hostilities.
In terms of number of Twitter users, India ranks third in the world, making the country an attractive market for the social media giant. At the same time, Twitter — along with Facebook — have emerged as key instruments for Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to shape public opinion, as well as push back against what they perceive as voices congenitally opposed to both leader and party, whether at home or abroad. This dynamic had resulted in a semblance of balance when it came to how far the Modi government was willing to go to make Twitter comply with its diktats, and the extent to which Twitter would oblige given its commercial interests.
However, recent events suggest that this delicate equilibrium could stand to be upset due to two factors. Rising techno-nationalism in India, as well as apprehension by many in the Indian establishment that the growing power of social media giants may end up working at cross-purposes with how the Modi government visualizes its utility, provides one set of push. Growing demands on Twitter to clean up its act when it comes to amplifying illiberal voices (especially following the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol), as well as placating authoritarian regimes around the world, is the other; indeed, with a Democrat in the White House with a declared agenda to focus on human rights, social media giants have a good reason to not been seen as engaging in either.
On February 1, Twitter complied with an Indian government order to block more than 200 accounts that had used a hashtag linked to the ongoing farmers’ protests deemed offensive by the Modi government – including, strangely enough, that of a well-respected Indian English-language monthly. However, following a massive backlash the social media behemoth unblocked the accounts, leading the Indian government to warn it on Tuesday that non-compliance could invite “penal action.” The Financial Times quoted an Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology spokesperson as saying “the restoration [of those accounts] is in violation of the judicial process,” and that Twitter was “not following the law of the land.”
And this was before entertainer Rihanna – along with climate activist Greta Thunberg, Meena Harris (niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris), and others – took to Twitter to express concern and support for the farmers’ protest, setting in motion an extraordinary drama on Indian social media. To add to these problems, Twitter also deleted some of the more inflammatory tweets by Indian actor and pro-BJP voice Kangana Ranaut on February 4. It would be fair to expect that such actions, if they were to continue, would lead the Hindu right to suspect that the social media giant’s sympathy did not exactly lie with Modi and the ruling party – if they haven’t reached that conclusion already, that is.
Following the social media ban on (now former) U.S. President Donald Trump soon after the January 6 incident in Washington, D.C., Hindu-nationalist voices had begun to worry that they could be next in Twitter’s and Facebook’s cross-hairs. That said, one also needs to keep in mind that, in the past, Facebook has been accused of being in cahoots with the ruling BJP.
These recent issues sit on top of much deeper concerns in India about data protection, localization, and privacy. They also feed in to debates in India about sovereign jurisdiction over the internet, and rules of the road when it comes to global cyber governance. While growing techno-nationalism does indeed drive some of these discourses, part of it also has to do with a broader perception in many, influential quarters in India that the country’s relationships with tech giants are increasingly becoming asymmetric, which, in turn, allows them great (if indirect) power over the Indian polity.
At the moment, what steps the Modi government can prudently take against Twitter — if the platform’s non-compliance with Indian demands continues — remains to be seen. At the end of the day, any dramatic action against the social media giant could stand to backfire, especially as concerns continue to mount in many Western capitals about a perceived acceleration of democratic backsliding in India during the past two years. And then of course, there is the fact that the platform remains extraordinarily potent in the hands of the BJP.