It’s not a good time to be Twitter in India. Over the past few days, three criminal cases have been filed against Twitter head Manish Maheshwari by police departments in the BJP-led state of Uttar Pradesh that could be a foreshadowing of things to come for free speech on social media in the country. Rajiv Rao specially for the New Tech for Old India.
When Maheshwari first signed up for the role at Twitter, which has turned out to be India’s most perilous job, he probably did not know he had bargained for.
One of lawsuits were filed by a right-wing Hindu group in Uttar Pradesh targeting Twitter for allowing a version of the map of India that did not include the sensitive, once-autonomously-ruled region of Kashmir to be on its platform. The area, claimed by both India and Pakistan since the region’s partition in 1947, has been under repressive, direct rule by New Delhi since 2019, political observers say.
In another criminal lawsuit filed against Maheshwari a few weeks ago, police from the state of Uttar Pradesh were all set to come down and haul him off a few thousand kilometres north to its own court.
For that lawsuit, the reason offered by the authorities was that Twitter circulated a video of a Muslim man being violently assaulted by right-wing Hindu goons in the town of Ghaziabad, which lies in Uttar Pradesh. The police claimed the video of the assault was inappropriate while the Muslim man’s family told online news site, The Wire, that the police apparently ignored their report and wrote up their own account instead.
Luckily for Maheshwari, he had the foresight to file for protection from the lawsuit in the state of Karnataka’s high court which has given him temporary respite.
However, the question that must surely be ringing in his head, and the heads of every social media and digital news platform, is how long can he possibly hang on, especially with the government being hellbent on controlling every narrative that exposes its shortcomings.
LOVE NOT WAR FOR BIG TECH
It wasn’t always like this. Narendra Modi’s first national electoral victory in 2014 was largely achieved using technology spanning 3D holograms to social media.
Indeed, the arrival of big tech investors from the US to China was trumpeted vigorously by Modi’s government as a sign of his ability to lure the world to India’s doorsteps.
He was seen as a man who had the vision, the business acumen, and the standing to catapult India into the major leagues that neighbour China has inhabited for some time now.
Huge investments by global giants were initially lauded as evidence of Modi’s magic in creating ripe conditions for global business in India, much like what he had purportedly done for his home state of Gujarat where he was previously chief minister.
The stringent regulations against digital platforms also come as a surprise as Modi himself has been Twitter India’s foremost user-in-chief with 69 million followers. The Facebook page of Modi’s government party, the BJP, has also been a lynchpin of its information dissemination strategy during the runup to elections.
Meanwhile, overseas e-commerce entities basked for years in a glaring loophole that limited foreign on-ground stores to selling single brands while the likes of “multi-brand” Amazon and Flipkart could sell unlimited goods made by infinitely different sellers.
For close to six years, this cozy relationship thrived.
AN ABRUPT U-TURN
So where did things go so dramatically wrong for Modi and big tech?
In 2019, Modi won an even bigger mandate during elections. With much of India’s votes putting more wind beneath his sails, and under the stewardship of his right-hand man Amit Shah, India’s prime minister launched a series of repressive Acts that targeted the minority Muslim population in an attempt to strip millions of their right to live in India amongst other things.
For the first time under Modi’s watch, there was pushback by ordinary citizens, both online and in-person, in the form of large, sit-down peaceful protests, especially by women.
Six months after the election, Modi imposed direct rule in Kashmir that suspended all internet activity in the valley, including all news going out and coming in, while jailing of all of its leaders.
However, it was his next act — an attempt to ram three new farming Bills through Parliament late last year without consulting major stakeholders — that launched India’s most recent phase of nationwide civic protest.
These Bills, critics say, aim to remove crucial government safety nets in farming, a vulnerable sector that relies on fickle monsoon rains, while also throwing open farming to the whims of the private sector that includes many of Modi’s favourite industrialist chums.
Huge protests then erupted all across India in January this year before they were met with an iron fist. Young women — from climate activists to labour rights leaders — were jailed, as were droves of protesting farmers.
This is where Twitter came into its own, becoming the platform of choice for voicing dissent. Mass mobilisations all over India began using the platform to express opinions and organise protests against the government.
Modi was predictably enraged at what he has dubbed as propaganda efforts to undermine and conspire against India. As a result, he directed Twitter to take down hundreds of posts that were critical of him and the Bills. When Twitter stalled, India threatened to imprison the social media company’s staff for seven years. They had no choice but to permanently block over 500 accounts as directed by the government.
COVID-19 EXPOSES THE MIRAGE
Then came possibly the biggest public relations nightmare that Modi has encountered to date — something he hasn’t yet been able to recover from, say observers: The brutal second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic second that has raged across the length and breadth of the country.
Once again, Twitter — and Facebook to some extent — was a locus for almost everything, from information to desperate pleas for oxygen cylinders to outpourings of anguish and rage.
The images were too ghastly to wish away: Overflowing cremation grounds consumed by flames and bodies; videos of terrified and desperate relatives, wailing at hospital corridors and on the streets as people tended to their dying relatives; a nation on its knees with no one around to help it, certainly not its leaders.
As Modi tried frantically to block these posts, Indians began to vent their fury at someone who they felt was directly responsible for the carnage. Instead of building stocks to ready the country for the second wave, critics and social media posts pointed to Modi’s culpability in the catastrophe due to the prime minister holding election rallies with millions of unmasked people.
He also greenlit the world’s largest fair, called the Kumbh Mela, which saw 100 million pilgrims, who were mostly unmasked, flock together to make the world’s largest “super spreader” event.
More importantly, when the country suffered unimaginable horrors, Modi — a man who is used to having his face printed on everything from billboards to COVID vaccination certificates — was conspicuously absent and the world knew it. Hashtags like #Modimadedisaster were top trenders across social media.
Meanwhile, having learnt from the farming Bill fiasco, the Indian government introduced restrictive new rules that have resulted in the slow tightening of the noose for players like Twitter.
Called the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, the rules have requirements that are designed to legally bring platforms like Twitter to their knees with stringent requirements for dealing with posts. Any content flagged as inappropriate must be removed within 36 hours notice.
The rules also necessitate that firms create three new local positions to address grievances, ensure compliance, and liaise with law enforcement.
THE POT-HOLED ROAD AHEAD
It will be interesting to watch how far Modi will go to rein in digital platforms and news publications.
The last six months have shown him how quickly resistance can spring through online messaging and mobilisation, even in a country that currently offers him no credible opposition.
With elections for the all-important state of Uttar Pradesh coming up in six months’ time, he will want to do as much as possible to control not just the narrative, but the technology that allows it to be shaped. The decision to stick it to US online giants, an age-old tactic, has intensified during the election run-up as part of efforts to cater to the vast base of small merchants and traders that are the bedrock of BJP’s voters.
Walmart’s Flipkart and Amazon are already trying to get their heads around another brand new rafter of rules that will prevent them from doing things like organising flash sales, one of their core marketing strategies. They have already been forced to re-organise their business structure based on new rules introduced in 2019.
India now represents the largest market for Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp in the world and these three would hate to do anything to upend milking this future goldmine considering China has already shut them out.
On the other hand, Twitter needs to maintain its legitimacy as a neutral platform and caving into authoritarian regimes would not be great for living up to that.
WhatsApp, meanwhile, has sued the government after being forced to stop encrypting messages — its core value proposition –and place them in a “traceable” database.
These platforms will continue to see how Modi handles being prime minister, especially with the US already looking at India as a potential liability, with critics saying Modi has been inept in handing COVID-19. The instability in Kashmir at a time when the Taliban are rapidly advancing in Afghanistan as US troops withdraw also doesn’t help Modi, say political analysts.
Considering all of the forces at play, big tech will hope that the unerring logic of realpolitik that forces Modi to make big noises and some threatening gestures ultimately does not close the gates for business that Modi had once promised when he came into office.