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Govt vs Twitter Row: A Complete Timeline & Where Things Stand Now

“If social media is misused to spread fake news & violence, action will be taken,” RS Prasad said in Rajya Sabha.

Updated
Cyber
4 min read
“If social media is misused to spread fake news, violence then action will be taken,” RS Prasad said in Rajya Sabha. Image used for representation. 
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If January 2021 saw WhatsApp dominate headlines with its contentious privacy policy update, February witnessed Twitter’s escalating tensions with the Indian government, over blocking of accounts related to the farmers’ protests.

The past two weeks have seen the government threaten the microblogging platform with penal action and FIRs, breeding apprehensions of a suspension in the manner in which Chinese apps were blocked.

Twitter, however, continued to push back against a wholesale blocking of accounts saying, “We will continue to advocate for the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve.”

Explaining in its blog that it does not believe that the actions it has been directed to take by the government are consistent with Indian law, Twitter said it has ‘not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians’.

Controversies related to the farmers’ protests that erupted on Twitter on 26 January came to a head with the Union Electronics & IT Ministry (MeitY) meeting with Twitter’s top US-based officials and reprimanding the platform for its ‘unwillingness and grudging’ attitude towards adhering to blocking orders.

As the government versus Twitter feud continues to simmer, here’s a comprehensive timeline of all that has transpired over the past 15 days, and where things stand now:

26 JANUARY:

On the afternoon of 26 January, as clashes broke out between protesting farmers and Delhi Police at different points in the capital, a steady stream of tweets surfaced on Twitter calling for violence, particularly against Sikh farmers.

Within hours on Republic Day, what started as a stream of tweets evolved into a flood of hateful messages against the Sikh community at large with tweets using words like ‘genocide’, ‘1984’ and hashtags like #MissingIndira #shoot trending.

The Quint reached out to Twitter on the issue and the social media company said it has ‘taken strong enforcement action’ and ‘suspended more than 500 accounts engaged in spam and platform manipulation’.

1 FEBRUARY:

Even though 1 February was supposed to be Budget 2021 day, one of the biggest stories of the day was the blocking of over 250 Twitter accounts that have been covering the farmers’ protests and have been critical of the Centre, including those of The Caravan, and the Kisan Ekta Morcha.

The accounts were ‘withheld because of a legal demand’ from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and remained unavailable in India for most of the day. They were subsequently restored by Twitter, which pushed back against the block in discussions with the government at a meeting on 1 February.

2 FEBRUARY:

Following Twitter’s restoration of the accounts, the IT Ministry issued a notice to the platform on Tuesday, 2 February, for ‘non-compliance of directions’ issued under Section 69A of the IT Act with regard to orders for removal of accounts related to the hashtag ‘farmer genocide’.

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3 FEBRUARY:

Incensed by the restoration of these accounts, on 3 February, in a sternly-worded letter MeitY informed Twitter once again, “It may be noted that as per Indian law, with which Twitter is bound to comply, Twitter is an ‘intermediary’ as defined under Section 2[1][w] of the Information Technology Act.” It also warned the social media platform of legal consequences for not complying.

On 3 February, Jack Dorsey liked two tweets by Washington Post reporter Karen Attiah — one stating that ‘Rihanna has the Indian government shook’ and another asking for a ‘Twitter emoji for the farmers’ protest. Both tweets used the hashtag #FarmersProtest.

4 FEBRUARY:

On Thursday, February 4, MeitY had shared a flagged list of 1,178 ‘Pak-based’ as well as ‘Khalistani’ accounts, operating from outside India for allegedly threatening public order amid the national outrage against the farm bills.

However, Twitter had pushed back against the takedown and said it was examining the orders.

On the same day, in yet another significant move, Twitter deleted two tweets by actor Kangana Ranaut on 4 February for violating the platform’s rules of inciting violence and refering to farmers as terrorists. Ranaut is known to be close to the ruling establishment.

6 FEBRUARY:

Twitter’s head of public policy and government partnerships, Mahima Kaul stepped down from her post, the social media platform confirmed on Saturday, 6 February. Kaul said she has stepped down from her role in the firm to take some time off, The Hindustan Times reported. It is not clear whether the resignation was related to the ongoing controversy.

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9 FEBRUARY:

As tensions simmered, ‘Koo’ app, a desi alternative to Twitter, started gaining ground as a micro-blogging platform with several Union ministers, including Union Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal as well as several government functionaries and BJP leaders joining it.

Other government entities, mostly under the Union Electronics & IT Ministry, that are present on the app include MyGov, Digital India, India Post, NIC, and UMANG.

10 FEBRUARY

Amid escalating tensions between the government and Twitter, the Union Electronics & IT Ministry, in a virtual meeting with top officials of the social media company on Wednesday, 10 February, expressed strong displeasure in the way Twitter has pushed back against demands to block over 1,400 accounts related to the farmers’ protests.

According to a press release by the government late on Wednesday, 10 February, Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Secretary, MeitY, held a meeting with Monique Meche, Vice President Global Public Policy and Jim Baker, Deputy General Counsel and Vice President Legal, and stated that, ‘lawfully passed orders are binding on any business entity’ and ‘they must be obeyed immediately’.

Sawhney expressed his disappointment to the leadership team about the manner in which, “Twitter has unwillingly, grudgingly and with great delay complied with the substantial parts of the order,” the Ministry’s statement mentioned.

Earlier on Wednesday, the social media giant, in response to the blocking orders by the government against 1,400 accounts related to the ongoing farmers’ protests, had stated in a blog that it had ‘withheld a portion of the accounts’ but ‘within India only’.

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11 FEBRUARY:

The controversy reached the Parliament with Union Electronics & IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad making a statement in the Rajya Sabha.

"We respect social media a lot, it has empowered common people. Social media has a big role in the digital India programme. However, if social media is misused to spread fake news and violence, then action will be taken," Prasad said in a stern warning to Twitter to fall in line.

According to ANI, The Centre has informed the Parliament that IT rules are being amended to make social media platforms more responsive and accountable to Indian laws. These rules will also make digital media platforms adhere to the Code of Ethics.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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