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 stood empty and closed amid the devastating coronavirus outbreak in India. 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.
Symbolically, however, 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 government 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 increased 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. For example, in March the Russian government said it was slowing 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 manner in which it was carried out, this raid is an escalation in the suppression 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 surveillance 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. Online networks emerged on Twitter and other social media platforms, where volunteers could connect desperate patients to relief supplies.
The second wave of the coronavirus peaked on May 6 – 414,188 new infections. Since then, cases have fallen by nearly 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 nationalist agenda for Hindus 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 imagination, the company indulged in government demands and blocked the accounts of 500 people accused of making inflammatory statements about Mr. Modi.
Last summer, India banned TikTok, WeChat, and dozens of other Chinese apps, citing 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.
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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 has been retweeted more than 5,000 times, including by government ministers and by Mr. Modi’s 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 fortune at the expense of people’s suffering,” tweeted Dr. Vardhan.
Aside from the plans being fake 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 the 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 posters were hung in Delhi questioning 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 contributed to the coverage.