Twitter and YouTube censored a report criticizing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in coordination with the Indian government. Officials called on Big Tech companies to take action against a BBC documentary exploring Modi’s role in a 2002 genocidal massacre in the Indian state of Gujarat, which officials called a “piece of propaganda”.
In a series of messages, Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the Indian government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced the BBC documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-Indian rubbish”. He said Twitter and YouTube had been ordered to block links to the film, adding that the platforms “complyed with instructions”. Gupta’s statements coincided with posts from Twitter users in India who claimed to have shared links to the documentary, but whose posts were later deleted and replaced with a legal notice.
“The government has sent hundreds of requests to different social media platforms, especially YouTube and Twitter, to remove posts that share clips or links to the documentary,” Indian journalist Raqib Hameed Naik told The Intercept. “And shamefully, the companies are complying with their requests and have taken down many videos and posts.”
“The government has sent hundreds of requests to different social media platforms, especially YouTube and Twitter, to remove posts that share clips or links to the documentary.”
This act of censorship – erasing allegations of crimes against humanity committed by a foreign leader – sets an ominous tone for Twitter, especially in light of its new leadership.
Elon Musk’s self-identification as a ‘free speech absolutist’ was the billionaire’s main talking point as he sought to explain why he took ownership of the platform. last year. Much of his criticism of Twitter revolved around his decision to censor reporting around Hunter Biden, the son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
While Musk was happy to oppose the suppression of speech against conservatives in the United States – something he described as nothing less than a “battle for the future of civilization” – he seems to be failing the much more serious challenge of standing up to the authoritarian demands of foreign governments. (Twitter’s communications effort is now led by Musk, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Pushing back against censorship of the BBC documentary, opposition All India Trinamool Congress MPs Mahua Moitra and Derek O’Brien defiantly posted links to it online.
“Sorry, I was not elected to represent the largest democracy in the world to accept censorship”, Moira job. “Here’s the link. Watch it while you can. Moitra’s post is still up, but the link to the documentary no longer works. Moitra had posted a link to the Internet Archive, presumably hoping to circumvent the BBC’s block , but the Internet Archive later removed the link and has since posted the audio version on Telegram.
O’Brien’s post was itself eliminated.
Twitter even blocked the Indian public from seeing two messages from actor John Cusack linking to the documentary. (They stay visible to the American public.) Cusack said he “pushed the ties back and got immediate blowback.” He told The Intercept: “I got two notices that I’m banned in India.” The actor has written a book, “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said,” with famous Indian scholar Arundhati Roy, a fierce critic of the Modi government.
The Gujarat riots, as the violence is sometimes known, happened in 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of the state. A group of activists aligned with the Hindu nationalist movement, which encompasses Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, have launched a violent campaign against local Muslims. Modi, who has been accused of personally encouraging the violence, reportedly told police forces to stand down in the face of the ongoing violence, which has killed around 1,000 people.
“The documentary has angered Mr Modi as he continues to shirk responsibility for his complicity in the violence,” said Naik, the reporter. “He sees the documentary as a threat to his image internationally and has launched an unprecedented crackdown in India.”
The Modi government in India has regularly lobbied Twitter in an attempt to bend the social media platform to its will. At one point, the government threatened to arrest Twitter staff in the country for its refusal to ban accounts run by critics.
When Musk took over, Twitter only had a 20% compliance rate regarding the Indian government’s withdrawal requests. When the billionaire privatized the company, some 90% of Twitter India’s 200 employees were made redundant. Now, the Indian government’s pressure on Twitter seems to be gaining traction.
A key difference may be Musk’s other business entanglements. Musk himself has his own business interests in India, where Tesla has lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, for tax breaks to enter the Indian market.
Whatever the reason for the apparent change, the actions taken by Twitter at the behest of Modi’s government bode ill for Musk’s claims to run the company to protect free speech. While Musk felt good about wading through America’s culture wars on behalf of conservatives, he’s been far more reluctant to take a stand on the far graver threats to free speech from autocratic governments.
One of the early strengths of Twitter, and social media in general, was the threat it posed to autocratic governments, as evidenced by its use during the 2009 protests in Iran and later the Arab Spring. Dictators across the region blamed the company for allowing what they considered forbidden speech.
Musk, however, said he defers to local laws on speech impairments. “Like I said, my preference is to be closer to the laws of the countries in which Twitter operates,” Musk tweeted Last year. “If citizens want something banned, then pass a law to do so, otherwise it should be allowed.”
Google, which owns YouTube, has also come under intense pressure from the Indian government. The company’s public transparency reports show that the Indian government has been a prodigious source of content removals, sending more than 15,000 censorship requests since 2011, compared to less than 5,000 in Germany and nearly 11,000 in the United States. during the same period.
These reports show a varying level of compliance on Google’s part: between January and June 2022, Google censored almost 9% of material submitted by the Indian government, but almost 44% during this period in 2020. YouTube n did not immediately respond to a request for comment. .
Akshay Marathe, a former spokesman for the opposition party controlling the Delhi and Punjab government, told The Intercept that the social media takedown demands were part of a broader crackdown. Modi “has used India’s law enforcement apparatus quite brazenly to jail political opponents, journalists and activists on a regular basis,” Marathe said. “His directive to Twitter to remove all links from the documentary (and Twitter’s shocking compliance after Elon’s free speech pledge) also follows the Modi government’s announcement that it will soon put implement a regulatory regime in which it will have the right to determine what is fake news and order Big Tech platforms to remove the content.