AN investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists illustrates India’s determined efforts to stifle diversity of opinion on social media — even more so where the issue of India-held Kashmir is concerned. According to the results, since 2017, Twitter at the request of the Modi government has blocked nearly a million tweets from various accounts. And given that the requests — dating between August 2017 and August this year — were retrieved from only one open database, the picture that emerges is likely just a snapshot of the actual situation. The CPJ found 53 letters to Twitter from the Indian government during this period asking the social media giant to take action under its Country Withheld Content policy to block all or portions of 400 accounts. Around 45pc of those accounts were focused on the disputed territory. The Indian government was undoubtedly gratified by the social media platform’s response: nearly 90pc of the withheld accounts referenced Kashmir. In August alone, when the Indian government stripped the region of its special status and imposed a media blackout while engaging in brutal human rights violations inside the disputed territory, nine legal requests were sent to Twitter citing 20 accounts and 24 tweets. That constituted a considerable spike in the frequency of such requests.
Significantly, all the requests that originated from India’s ministry of electronic and information technology — 40 of the 53 in total — cited legislation pertaining to national security and public order to make their case. That is an old canard to suppress criticism of official policy that could paint a country in a negative light. Usually, even when a country’s mainstream media has been browbeaten and/or swayed by financial blandishments into becoming cheerleaders for the government, social media, given its nature, remains a largely untamed space where global voices can be heard. In this instance, several journalists’ accounts were also caught up in the Twitter moderation dragnet. The social media giant’s opaque moderation policy sometimes encourages speculation about its criteria for blocking accounts or taking down tweets. In August, 200 accounts belonging to Pakistanis posting content in support of Kashmir were blocked. Despite its claims of impartiality, evidence indicates Twitter’s increasing compliance with requests from the Indian government. To maintain the platform as a space for open discourse and exchange of ideas, Twitter must consider requests to block accounts within the larger political context, and distinguish between incitement to violence and fair comment.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019