A file photo of farmers on a vigil remembering the farmers who lost their lives during the protests at Ghaziabad border, India. The government ordered Twitter to block 1474 accounts and 175 tweets to be blocked, under India’s Information Technology Act of 2000, according to MediaNama. The tweets, from February 2021 to February 2022, reportedly were those that were critical of the government’s handling of a massive farmers’ protest in north India, and its response to the Covid crisis in the country.
Image: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images
e live in an age when social media platforms both stoke anger and hatred and provide an outlet for such sentiments–generating an interminable feedback loop. Among such platforms, Twitter is probably the best known, where people vent outrage over slights to everything from religion to sexual orientation. Cancel cultures are rife.
The microblogging platform provider has just changed hands, with Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, finally buying it in a $44 billion deal
after months-long back-and-forth posturing that included a whistle blower and a volte face.
Twitter is popular in India too, the company’s third-biggest market by number of users-–estimated at about 24 million, according to Statista. Under its previous management, including Indian-born American executives CEO Parag Agrawal and top legal and policy boss Vijaya Gadde, both of whom have reportedly been fired
, Twitter has had a mixed run with the Indian government.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is well known for his social media savvy and who’s been using it from 2009, is the most followed person in India on the platform. He has close to 84 million followers of his personal Twitter handle @narendramodi-–way higher than cinema superstar Amitabh Bachchan or cricketer Virat Kohli, for example. Even Modi’s official @pmoindia handle outstrips the celebrities.
Twitter, however, is also at loggerheads with the Indian government
over orders to take down some tweets and content. In July, the US-based company went to court in India, challenging government orders to take down several accounts and tweets.
The social media company filed a petition with the high court in the southern state of Karnataka, resisting “several” such orders, BBC reported on July 6. Twitter was reacting to a letter from the government in June, warning of “serious consequences” of non-compliance of such orders, according to the BBC report.
Twitter said in its petition that it complied with the orders “under protest”, MediaNama
, which reviewed the July 5 petition, reported on July 8.
The government ordered Twitter to block 1474 accounts and 175 tweets under India’s Information Technology Act of 2000, according to MediaNama. The tweets, from February 2021 to February 2022, reportedly were those that were critical of the government’s handling of a massive farmers’ protest in north India, and its response to the Covid-19 crisis in the country.
In June this year, Entrackr
also reported that the government of India in 2021 ordered Twitter to take down tweets by a US-based non-profit organisation, Freedom House, which discussed declining internet freedom in India.
After Twitter filed the petition, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, minister of state for Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and Electronics and Information Technology, took to Twitter itself to say that all foreign internet companies had the right to go to court but, equally, they must also all follow the laws of the land.
The court in Karnataka is still hearing the case. Twitter told the court that the government’s order to not just remove tweets, but to block several accounts, was unconstitutional, and violated freedom of speech under Indian rules, Economic Times
reported on September 26.
In February 2021, the Indian government published new guidelines under the IT act that required platforms such as Twitter-–or any other internet intermediary with 5 million users or more-–to take down content within 36 hours of an order from an appropriate government agency or a court order.
The rules also mandated that the intermediaries install local nodal contact persons-–expected to be available round the clock-–and grievance officers and prominently publish their contact details.
Twitter’s new biggest owner Elon Musk (51) is a “self-described free-speech absolutist,” according to the Wall Street Journal
, which noted on October 27 that Musk has pledged to limit content moderation in favour of emphasising free speech.
For example, Musk has said he would reinstate former US President Donald Trump’s account
, which Twitter suspended indefinitely after linking Trump’s comments to a riot in the US Capitol, the location of the US Congress, in January, fomented by Trump’s supporters.
Some American companies are likely to pull ads from Twitter if Trump was allowed back on the platform, according to the Journal, which cited a senior executive at GroupM, a leading ad-buying agency that represents blue-chip brands in the US. Twitter is heavily dependent on ads for most of its revenue.
“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilisation to have a common digital town square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy manner, without resorting to violence,” Musk, who is now expected to take the company private, tweeted to advertisers in a letter yesterday.
“That said, Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences! In addition to adhering to the laws of the land, our platform must we warm and welcoming to all,” he said.
Twitter’s reach in India is largely limited to the English speaking, and in general, the more affluent people, including the country’s startup entrepreneurs, its IT services and tech workers, and white-collar professionals. These are also potentially the first likely customers for the Starlink satellite internet service that Musk wants to offer in India as well.
Tesla, the world’s most valuable car company, and the business that Musk is probably best known for, is also negotiating with India over the electric car maker’s entry into this market. At one point, that entry seemed imminent, with an advanced party in Bengaluru, India’s tech capital, according to various media reports. More recently, the plans seem to be on hold.
Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that there is, in general, a significantly more widely accepted adversarial give-and-take between private companies and entrepreneurs in the US and even their highest government officials.
Time will tell if Twitter, under Musk, will ramp up that adversarial stance in India, which in absolute revenue terms, is probably a small market for it, although the country remains the world’s fastest growing major economy. Or, as Musk’s letter to advertisers proclaims, it will toe the line according to the laws of the land, with or without court challenges.