Officials from India’s elite counter-terrorism unit dismounted at Twitter’s New Delhi offices after dark, with television cameras in tow. Your mission: start a fight over fake news.
The offices were empty and closed India’s devastating coronavirus outbreak. And police admitted they were there to deliver nothing more legally binding than a notice denying a warning label that Twitter had assigned to some tweets.
But symbolically, the police visit on Monday evening sent a clear message that India’s powerful ruling party is becoming increasingly upset via Twitter because the company is on the side of the government’s critics. As anger over India’s tumbling response to the pandemic has risen across the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and his Bharatiya Janata party have sought to control the narrative.
As a result, Indian leaders have put increasing pressure on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms for people to voice their grievances on. In doing so, they are following the path of some other countries trying to control how and where news can spread on social media. In March, for example The Russian government said it would slow down access to Twitter, one of the few places where Russians openly criticize the government.
The police visit “shows the extent to which the party in power can use state machinery to contain opposing voices and mishandle the opposition,” said Gilles Verniers, professor of political science at Ashoka University near New Delhi.
“Regardless of the clumsy way it was carried out, this raid is an escalation in the repression of domestic criticism in India,” he said.
For example, the police visit was triggered by labels that Twitter applied to tweets from high-ranking party members called BJP
Party leaders released documents calling it irrefutable evidence that opposition politicians planned to take advantage of India’s stumbling coronavirus response to Tar Mr. Modi and India’s own reputation.
But Twitter undercut that campaign when it labeled the posts “rigged media.” Indian disinformation guard groups said the documents were forged.
In finding Twitter, the BJP focused on one of the main ways people in India sought help when infections began to rise in April and people began to die by the thousands a day. Hospital beds, medicines, and supplemental oxygen became precious goods. On Twitter and other social media platforms, online networks emerged where volunteers could connect desperate patients with relief supplies.
The second wave of the coronavirus peaked on May 6 – 414,188 new infections. Since then, cases have fallen by almost half, but the total death toll, 303,720, continues to rise.
The BJP is not a fan of social media. Under Mr Modi, it has used social media to spectacular effect, pushing its Hindu nationalist agenda into large parts of the country and vilifying its opponents.
But as dissenting voices increase and the BJP’s tolerance of dissenting voices has deteriorated, it has used tougher tactics to contain the platforms.
This month, the government ordered social media platforms, including Twitter, to remove dozens of posts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
In February, when a farmer-led protest against changes in agriculture caught the public’s imagination, the company gave in to government demands blocked the accounts of 500 people accused of making inflammatory remarks about Mr. Modi.
Last summer, India has banned TikTok, WeChat, and dozens of other Chinese appsciting national security concerns.
Although Mr Modi’s government controls the police in Delhi, it was not clear on Tuesday that the failed mission at the Twitter office was at their behest.
A BJP spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Twitter spokeswoman asked questions in an email that went unanswered.
On May 18, a BJP spokesman, Sambit Patra, tweeted a picture of a document he cited by India’s National Congress, the main opposition party, as plans to make the government look bad.
Mr. Patra’s message was retweeted more than 5,000 times, also from ministers in Mr. Modi’s government and party leaders.
Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister of Health, used the hashtag #CongressToolkitExposed to penetrate the opposition party.
“It is unfortunate that they are trying to disseminate misinformation during this global catastrophe in order to increase their dwindling political fortunes at the expense of people’s suffering.” Dr. Vardhan tweeted.
Aside from the plans being falsified and treated on old letterhead, independent fact-checking organizations and the Congress Party filed a police report against Mr Patra and another BJP leader said. Last Thursday, Twitter stepped in, calling the tweet “rigged media” – and provoking the wrath of government supporters who demanded that the Indian government ban the company.
Many blame government hubris for the disaster India is currently experiencing. As the cases increased in March, Mr. Modi fought for state elections. His government signed a religious festival that drew millions of Hindus to the banks of the Ganges.
Mr. Modi, who regularly gave rousing national speeches in the first wave of fall, has become less visible in the second wave. Many Indians feel abandoned. With local pandemic lockdowns still in place and not taking to the streets, protesters are limited to social media.
This space is shrinking, said advocates of digital rights and public interest lawyers.
While virus infections and deaths skyrocketed last month, at least 25 people were arrested after questioning posters were hung in Delhi India’s decision to export vaccines abroad.
The posters were made by the ruling party in Delhi, another party against the BJP, according to party member Durgesh Pathak.
“In a democracy there is nothing wrong with asking a question,” said Pathak. “I don’t abuse anyone. I don’t incite anyone to violence. I am not asking anyone to do wrong. I am asking a question to the Prime Minister of my country. “
Hari Kumar Contribution to reporting.