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Twitter vs State: Can Elon Musk Stop India's Free Speech ‘Bulldozers’?

India’s ‘digital town square’ is under threat from misinformation, fake news and an authoritarian state.

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Opinion
5 min read
Twitter vs State: Can Elon Musk Stop India's Free Speech ‘Bulldozers’?
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Elon Musk reached an agreement on Monday, 25 April, to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion. With this acquisition, Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, also becomes the ‘mayor’ of the ‘digital town square’ of the world.

There is no denying that Twitter is broken in many complex ways. Users in India have been hurt by these broken shards of a once-promising platform intensely over the past few years.

So, how will this acquisition impact India’s 25 million users, many of whom are subjected to hate speech, misinformation, harassment and censorship?

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Free Speech Is for All, Including Minorities & the Marginalised

Musk, in his statement, has iterated that “free speech is the bedrock of a functioning democracy, and Twitter is the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”. So far, he has offered little specifics about the contours of his free speech crusade.

Free speech, however, faces major threats in India from a vast network of users who have weaponised the platform, aided by the Central government, which has long sought to clip the Twitter bird’s wings.

Since ‘digital town square’ is Musk’s preferred description of Twitter, an extension of this metaphor would indicate that this public square, or chaupaal, faces demolition threats in India from four specific ‘bulldozers’ of free speech.

As in the physical world, it is essential to ensure that the free speech in the digital public square, especially of minorities and the vulnerable and the marginalised is not bulldozed through content policing, troll armies and debilitating disinformation attacks.

If Musk truly believes he “can make Twitter better than ever”, the following four metaphorical digital bulldozers will have to be negotiated and tackled in order to ensure that Twitter in India is truly free, open and safe.

How Twitter Received Backlash For Labelling Patra's Tweet

At the outset, it is important to understand what exactly Musk means when he talks about “free speech”. He has harped on the need to make Twitter a thriving free speech platform where everyone – the right, the left and the centre – have their say. India, however, presents a far more complex struggle.

Misinformation continues to plague Twitter. What makes it graver is the peddling of misinformation by not just supporters of the government but also, on numerous occasions, by spokespersons and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

To be fair, Twitter had come up with tags to label tweets it considered misleading or fake in March 2020. It had labelled former US President Donald Trump’s tweets before deplatforming him.

However, in India, the platform faced severe backlash from the Centre after it started labelling BJP politicians Amit Malviya and Sambit Patra’s tweets as “manipulated media”.

After labelling Patra’s tweet, not only did the Ministry of Electronics & IT fire off a sternly worded letter to Twitter but also sent teams of Delhi Police’s special squad to the company’s India offices when it refused to take down the labels.

Rampant Hate Speech 

The second bulldozer that threatens to demolish the spirit of Twitter as a digital town square in India has been the persistent problem of hate speech, often directed at minority communities and the vulnerable or marginalised sections of society.

The weaponsation of Twitter as a platform to propagate hate speech against individuals or communities has unfolded rapidly. While the account of actor Kangana Ranaut was permanently suspended in May 2021 for her tweets that called for violence, several thousands continue to operate.

Musk’s stand on ‘free speech’ will be tested in the months to come when he faces the myriad complexities and pressures of balancing free speech with the need to stop violence against people on the basis of their ethnic, religious, caste or sexual identities.

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Online Bullying & Troll Armies

Twitter bullies and troll armies are never on a break. They’re always lurking, always ready to pounce in ways so coordinated that it would put flying starlings to shame. The promise of free speech on the micro-blogging site has been bulldozed repeatedly by loud, cacophonous and malicious speech that aim to silence targeted users.

On Twitter, troll armies have mushroomed overwhelmingly since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to take on critics of the government. They have done so by either going after individuals or by obfuscating an issue by way of bombarding the platform with misinformation or misleading information.

Among the most shameful recent episodes of communal and targeted misogynistic harassment was that of ‘Sulli deals’, where images of Muslim women were shared, rated and ‘auctioned’ by a network of users.

Journalists, activists, film professionals, especially women, have consistently been targeted for voicing their opinions. Be it Rana Ayyub, Swara Bhaskar or Shehla Rashid, coordinated and targeted harassment has been commonplace and continues to thrive.

Twitter does have safety policies to facilitate action against targeted harassment, abuse or hateful conduct. However, the platform has struggled to keep up with the sheer volume of users who engage in such activity, many under aliases.

BJP Government’s 'Content Moderation'

It is no secret that Twitter and the Centre have been at loggerheads for years. The tussle escalated sharply in 2019 when the Parliamentary Committee on IT, then led by BJP leader Anurag Thakur, had summoned former CEO Jack Dorsey on allegations of an anti right-wing bias on Twitter.

The acrimony peaked in early 2021 when the special teams of Delhi Police raided Twitter’s officers after the platform refused to comply with wholesale account takedown ordered by the Centre during the farmers’ protest, and also later proceeded to label tweets by BJP leaders and spokespersons as “manipulated media”.

Former Union IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as well as other senior leaders have repeatedly targeted Twitter for its content moderation policies and threatened legal action for non-compliance. Three separate FIRs were filed against Twitter’s India head Manish Maheshwari in June 2021, in what were seen as further attempts to intimidate the platform’s India operations.

The saga grew murkier atfer the implementation of the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules, 2021,(IT Rules, 2021) that came into effect in May 2021. The new Rules, which put compliance requirements on social media platforms and can have a chilling effect on free speech, aim to reign in large platforms and force them to take down content the Centre deems problematic. Twitter was among the last major platforms to comply by appointing local grievance and nodal officers.

What Next?

The true test of Musk’s commitment to free speech will be as much from the state’s actions as it will be from individual users. Free speech faces bulldozing not just by fake news or hate speech, but also by larger strategic means employed by the state.

For Musk, his task is cut out. To protect free speech, he must not only take hard realities into account and continue to strengthen Twitter’s existing policies against misinformation, but also stand strong against repeated undermining attempts of its policies by those aligned with the regime.

(Sushovan Sircar is an independent journalist who reports on technology and cyber policy developments. His reports explore stories at the intersection of internet and society, covering issues of privacy, surveillance, cybersecurity, India’s data regime, social media and emerging technologies. He tweets @Maha_Shoonya. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(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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