Twitter is way over its head in India. The avian network twice published a map that showed parts of India as part of China. In May, Twitter flagged a post by ruling party leaders, including a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, as “manipulated media.” Last week, Twitter briefly locked the account of Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad due to an alleged violation of American copyright law. Can you say, American leftist imperial overreach? It’s an ideological mouthful but most neatly encapsulates Twitter’s status in India: cruisin’ for a bruisin’.
India is starting to hit back at Twitter by tying it in legal knots, such as criminal charges with allegations of “treason” filed against Twitter’s India chief, Manish Maheshwari. Minister Prasad hit out at Twitter on June 30 on national television, as did media personality Arnab Goswami (full disclosure: I was on the show). Much of the country, of various political persuasions, is enraged by Twitter.
India’s message to the American company is simple. Follow. The. Law.
Unlike Twitter, the Indian government was elected. Thus, Twitter’s attempt to regulate freedom of speech in India is an overstep of what an international corporation and content platform (rather than content producer) is designed to do. Twitter’s Big Tech imperialism in India is politicking under the guise of fact checking. India has a long history of anti-imperialism, is strongly independent, and does not take kindly to Western companies acting like the Queen of England did in 1857, when the British Empire imposed what was colloquially known as the “Press Gagging Act” against India’s newspapers.
American regulation of speech by elected officials in India is a non-starter. I’m frankly surprised that @Jack is being so tone-deaf.
“The transnational tech giant [Twitter] considers itself a ‘super sovereign’ that goes by its own rules and seeks to reserve the right to operate as the arbiter and adjudicator of FoE [freedom of expression] in India, challenging the writ of a sovereign republic,” according to a May 29 article by Sreemoy Talukdar, senior editor at Firstpost.
As a U.S. for-profit company, according to Talukdar, Twitter is responsible to its board of directors in the United States, and “As a private entity, it may also operate in accord with its [leftist] ideological agenda—it is pointless to charge Twitter with hypocrisy [on freedom of expression] if it discriminates against conservative voices.”
According to a hard-hitting July 1 article by Joyeeta Basu, editor of The Sunday Guardian (New Delhi), “For some reason, Twitter, which is not allowed to operate in China, scrupulously follows the Chinese map and has no regard for India’s territorial integrity. But then Twitter has been following in the footsteps of BBC, which too made India lose the whole of J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] and Ladakh in one of its maps. It is difficult to believe that the worthies working in BBC (several of them Indian/Indian origin), or Twitter in India, do not know what the Indian map looks like. So there is reason to believe that these are deliberate acts, whereby some keyboard warriors decide that in their view J&K and Ladakh are under India’s oppressive rule and hence must be given independence.”
Ms. Basu notes that the BBC and Twitter both apparently have a bias against the Narendra Modi government, which they see as “a fascist, right-wing authoritarian power.” She points out that it is the BBC’s job to have an opinion, but not the job of Twitter, which is just a platform and an intermediary. “Twitter is not supposed to be ideologically inclined and go around censoring content based on its ideology.”
The demands of the Indian government are reasonable, according to Ms. Basu. Prime Minister Modi’s ministers are “asking for the appointment of grievance redressal officers who are Indian citizens; apart from the protection of women and children from malicious and pornographic content, and stopping the dissemination of fake news.”
On June 30, an at times enraged Mr. Goswami, especially about the alleged lack of automated filters against child pornography, asked officials why they aren’t shutting Twitter down, to force it back to the bargaining table and into compliance with the law. So, pressure will be building on the company to comply.
At the same time, shutting down the network would be politically difficult, cutting off Indian citizens who use Twitter as a means of communication with each other, and with the outside world. That could hurt the BJP in opinion polls. Or, Indians could see it as a righteous strike against American leftist imperialism and switch to Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, all of which are already more popular than Twitter. Shareholders take note. Your stock has been declining since February.
There are a number of measures the Indian government can take short of shutting down Twitter, or jailing its Indian leader. For example, hefty fines. Jailing local Twitter executives is probably not a good idea as it would only make the BJP government look draconian and (ironically) anti-free speech to an international audience. It would focus global attention on some of the BJP’s other alleged excesses, including against its minority Muslim population.
According to Twitter on May 27, “we are concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve. We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT rules. We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation.”
Western media is concerned that the BJP could be using new information laws to bias the media towards the right, and against its opposing leftist political party, which is closer to Beijing than is the BJP.
“India’s central government, led by Narendra Modi, has repeatedly ordered Twitter to remove tweets that are critical of government actions and policies,” according to the left-leaning Guardian in London. “Twitter attracted the ire of ministers by refusing to comply with many of the demands for the removal of tweets and in May, police visited Twitter’s India headquarters in the capital, Delhi, to serve the company a legal notice.”
Subir Bhaumik, a Calcutta-based author of five books on South Asian conflicts, supports Twitter in the dispute. “The BJP wants a free run of [these] platforms for its vicious propaganda based on lies, lies and more lies,” he wrote in an email. “Therefore it opposes any restrictions or moderation by administrators of these platforms. Undeterred by threats from [the] Modi government, these global platforms must maintain their community standards and restrict hate speech at all costs.”
But the government claims that new laws will do exactly this. They help track social media users and thus deter those who instigate communal violence between Hindus and Muslims, according to their proponents. In 2018, a WhatsApp group rapidly turned a village into a lynch mob against day-visitors, for example. The visitors had given chocolates to children, and a rumor spread that they were abductors. That incident was one impetus for the new laws.
The political and social issues in India are complex ones that only Indians will be able to negotiate and decide. Twitter cannot and should not attempt to impose its western standards in a manner that will ironically cause an Indian overreaction against what appears to be liberal imperialism, or in conservative language, globalism. Conservatives around the world are starting to stand up in defense of local practices, cultures, economies, and legal systems, and against the largest global corporations that are using free trade ideology and the offer of marginally cheaper prices, as a vehicle to enter and change vulnerable markets and cultures. Using these ideas to change dangerous dictatorships like China and Russia is essential. But they do not apply in the same way to democracies.
Twitter will have to learn to follow local laws in democracies and allow elected heads of state and ministers to post as they will. Constituents in democracies do not want Twitter to mediate their relationship with their elected leaders, or the opposition party. That includes many in the United States, who are still upset with Twitter and other Big Tech companies for kicking President Donald Trump off their platforms.
The democratic system and free press is better suited to correcting fake news and protecting against demagogues than are unaccountable social media companies. When the BJP supposedly tweeted fake news, the Congress Party protested loudly. That was all that India needed. Democracy is a self-correcting system and does not need the meddling of foreigners. Indians will improve themselves over time, just as will Americans. They don’t need a patronizing company from Silicon Valley to tell them what is true or not.
So if Twitter wants to maintain its market share in India, which is the world’s largest democracy at almost 1.4 billion people, or the United States for that matter, it better start following the law. “Even a multinational private firm must operate within the cultural milieu of the land where it is located, obey local laws and pay taxes,” according to Talukdar. “It should concern us that a foreign company that has a large user base in India, does data mining and data harvesting to track the behavioral patterns and choices of its users, conducts business and earns money, refuses to comply with the law of the land, resorts to obfuscation, evasive maneuvers, and cliched tropes to avoid engagement with the state, and when pulled up for it, cries victim to escape culpability.”
Instead of harassing a democratic India, which is self-defeating, Twitter (if it wants to get radical and fight the power) would do better to use a bit more of its famous pugnacity against dictators in China and Russia. Go figure out how to pierce China’s Great Firewall, and redouble any efforts at labeling the Chinese regime’s tweets as fake news. China, not India, is the real threat to the truth.
Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He’s a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.