Amidst chaos in HQ, Twitter’s position in India ominous

Large-scale layoffs portend ill for India as well

Society

November 7, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Amidst chaos in HQ, Twitter’s position in India ominous

Fate of Twitter under Elon Musk remains uncertain

Ever since Elon Musk first announced interest in buying social media platform Twitter, the firm has been a site of utter confusion, with Musk’s repeated u-turns on the purchase. The confusion has peaked as on Friday many offices of Twitter around the world were closed in a huff and employees told to await emails regarding their future at the firm. In all this chaos, it remains to be seen if Twitter will be able and willing to continue its case against Indian government over curbs on posts deemed to be against government policy or right-wing ideology, per se.

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Friday November 4 is a date that few Twitter employees are likely to ever forget. Most of them are doomed to spend their day or perhaps the entire weekend to see if they have a job to return to on Monday as yet another idiosyncratic policy implemented by the new boss, world’s richest person Elon Musk, means that almost all Twitter offices remain closed today and employees have been told to await an email over their future.

Indeed, 2022 has been a year of utter chaos for the San Francisco-based firm, as it engaged in a tap dance with Musk for most of the year between wildly swinging positions of the multi-billionaire owner of Tesla. Amidst all this chaos and uncertainty, somehow Twitter has managed to file and pursue a case against the Indian government over its demands asking Twitter to take down any and all posts that were critical of the government, its policies and politicians.

While the case was still trundling on in the courts, Musk’s entry and the subsequent chaos and forced departures are certain to impact Twitters willingness and capacity to pursue the case and assert its independence. Added to it was a statement by the Indian government which said that despite Musk’s Twitter acquisition, India’s expectations will not change with the takeover and that the Indian government will soon come out with new IT rules for social media platforms.

“While wickets are falling in Twitter after Elon Musk takes over, the urban Naxals must be worried,” said an Indian filmmaker expressing his excitement about Twitter’s takeover. Meanwhile, experts in India believe that recent skirmishes between the social media giants and the government of India may have been given too much hype.

“We cannot single out Twitter just because it is trending due to the recent acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk. There are multiple other platforms with debatable content in India, such as YouTube channels, Instagram handles and OTT apps that we need to address,” Shipra Raj, a researcher at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, tells Media India Group.

Proponents of right-wing around the world applauded the takeover by Musk and expressed their enthusiasm over the news. Kangana Ranaut, an Indian actor and ardent supporter of right-wing Hindutva leaders, hailed the acquisition by Musk and expressed her desire to be restored on Twitter. And sure enough, the actor’s account that had permanently suspended in 2021 for repeated violations of ‘hateful content and abusive behaviour’ rules set by Twitter, was restored in a matter of hours the same day as Musk took charge.

The rapid restoration of Ranaut’s account may also point at the direction that Twitter would take in India and hence the doubts over whether it will pursue the case or drop it after months in the courts. In 2021, the social media platform revealed how the top officials at the IT ministry had asked it to block several accounts that belonged to rival political groups, personalities and media outlets, without citing any valid reason. Thus, in July this year, Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Indian government, challenging its orders, at the Karnataka High Court. The lawsuit states that Twitter’s chief compliance officer was asked to take down hundreds of accounts and tweets, many of which criticised the government’s policies and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“There are multiple cases relating to the matter, and India is one of the prime examples, where it was witnessed that there was a tryst between the government and the citizens, experiencing the longest internet shutdown in the state of Jammu and Kashmir historically. Now, bringing in digital and alternate media under the ambit of these rules, will also, in a way, curb the provisions of Article 19 (A), that gives Indians the freedom of speech and expression,” says Mayank Khari, a lawyer practicing in the Delhi High Court.

In mid-2021, while the second wave of Covid-19 wreaked havoc across the country leading to sharp criticism of the government’s abject failure to control the disease or come to the aid of the patients, Twitter had to censor 52 tweets at the government’s command. While the ministry claimed that the banned tweets were spreading “fake news”, it was observed by the court that most of the content had been critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, and not all of it was incendiary.

Over the past two years, Indian authorities have asked Twitter to act on content such as accounts supportive of Khalistan, an independent Sikh state, as well as posts alleged to have spread misinformation about protests by farmers that lasted over a year during the pandemic.

Experts believe that conflict between the government and social media platforms like Twitter would continue. “Although Twitter is not an Indian platform, it is a strong one among social media giants around the world. There are multiple other platforms too, and Koo is also one of those. When a rule comes into place, every social media platform, whether it is domestic or international, has to abide by the laws stated by the government of that country. There have been cases where these social media platforms have acted powerfully. They have tried to dictate, and they have tried to control cultural trends. So, when these platforms want to operate in India, then they must abide by our laws and regulations,” adds Raj.

But legal experts are worried about the government gaining greater control over social media. “There are multiple cases relating to the matter, and India is one of the prime examples, where it was witnessed that there was a tryst between the government and the citizens, experiencing the longest internet shutdown in the state of Jammu and Kashmir historically. Now, bringing in digital and alternate media under the ambit of these rules, will also, in a way, curb the provisions under Article 19 (A),” says Khari.

“We already have laws to protect the privacy and maintain peace in India. Freedom of speech is not absolute as Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution imposes certain restrictions on the right to free expression. The reasons for such restrictions are in the interests of the security of the country. But I strongly disagree that Social Media Intermediaries Rules will take care of that,” he adds.

With the situation continued to be in a flux for many more weeks, the fate of Twitter as well as the freedom of expression on a prominent, global social media handle will remain uncertain.

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