As Indian democracy crumbles day upon day under the grasp of Narendra Modi, social media platforms have functioned in lieu of a free press. As Reporters Without Borders recently noted, journalists in India “risk dismissal if they criticize the government.” Since Modi took control in 2014, India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom Index has fallen every year, plateauing at 142 (of 180 countries and regions) between 2020 and 2021.
But Modi is effectively squashing social media as a remaining lifeline, via IT regulations implemented in February that activists and concerned citizens alike have called unconstitutional and undemocratic. The new rules give the Indian government more power in managing their perception, with tech companies and video content providers forced to comply. They require social media platforms to be responsive about complaints about posts on their network, divulging to the government whom the “originator” of flagged content is—essentially ending end-to-end encryption.
Compounding this suppression is the fact that US-based tech companies had already been increasingly bowing to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Weeks before the rules were implemented, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts of journalists, media outlets, and politicians from opposition parties, among others, during the country’s farmers’ protests against new agricultural laws, in addition to blocking hundreds of pro-farmer tweets the government deemed “controversial.” Similarly, a 21-year-old climate activist supporting the protests was arrested for having edited a Google Doc with resources for protesters and people supporting the protests. The police found out she’d edited the document when Google shared her data.
Tech giants based in America have long thrived on exploiting the so-called global south. We have always been a good source of data and companies have appeased authoritarian regimes in exchange for this new, much-sought-after capital.
This is nothing short of digital colonialism: Where colonial powers once sought natural resources, today they seek data.
If the platform giants don’t follow the Indian government’s new regulations, they may lose a market of 1.3 billion people. And that’s something they’re clearly not willing to risk, regardless of the price Indian citizens themselves pay.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Big Tech started making a power grab in the global south that wasn’t just about deepening an already existent reliance on technology. It was about expanding territories by seizing opportunities with local partners.
In April 2020, Facebook picked up a 9.99 percent stake ($5.7 billion) in Reliance Industries’ Jio Platforms, India’s largest mobile network provider. In November, WhatsApp finally launched payments in India. And in June of this year, Google announced an Android smartphone in collaboration with Jio. In just the first eight months of the pandemic, Reliance owner Mukhesh Ambani’s wealth ballooned by $22 billion.
More than the money, however, as these new IT regulations are enforced, gaps between how Big Tech presents itself in the West versus how it presents itself in India have widened. In the former instance, the likes of Jack Dorsey have taken a strong stance against political figures like Donald Trump, following the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Dorsey defended banning Trump on account of potential “offline harm.”
In response, Indian BJP leaders tweeted out in support of Trump, stating that “if they can do this to POTUS, they can do this to anyone” and “big tech firms are now the new oligarchs.” Yet they must’ve known these firms would cede to the true new oligarchs, themselves.
In India, a country with increasingly (and historically) tense Hindu-Muslim relations, a politician’s tweet linking Islam with terrorism was removed only at the behest of his own government. Similarly, the BJP’s social media head tweeted a video suggesting that a protest against a controversial citizenship law in India was “sponsored” by the opposition party—something that was found to be false. That tweet is still on the platform without any tags marking it as false.
Why these inconsistencies? The question cannot be about whether the governments in countries like India are solely responsible for the state of their democracies. That view, especially if limited to the global south, is naive and culturally imperialist. If the Cambridge Analytica scandal has taught the world anything, it’s that data can make or break democratic elections anywhere.
In September 2020, the Delhi Assembly’s peace and harmony committee found that Facebook was complicit in aggravating the Hindu-Muslim riots in Delhi earlier that year, where 53 people died and over 400 were injured. The committee concluded that Facebook “should be treated as a co-accused” in the riots’ case and requested an independent probe to be carried out against the company.
Social media platforms cannot mitigate efforts toward peaceful protests or a right to information and simultaneously fuel hate, misinformation, and violence. When India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed Twitter to block nearly 100 Twitter accounts and 150 tweets related to the farmers’ protests, the platform did so immediately. Similarly, Twitter appears to have assisted the Modi government’s stifling of news from Kashmir since the disputed region lost its autonomous status under this government. In January, Reporters Without Borders condemned the suspension of a Twitter account belonging to the newsmagazine Kashmir Walla. And in March, Al Jazeera reported that several accounts belonging to Kashmiris who were critical of the Indian government, including US-based academic Ifat Gazia’s, had been shut down. In response to censorship accusations, a spokesperson for Twitter told Newsweek, ‘Many countries have laws that may apply to tweets and/or Twitter account content.”
Perhaps most disturbing is how streamlined such platforms have become in obliging the government. According to the Internet Freedom Foundation, Twitter removed a “manipulated media” tag from a BJP spokesperson’s tweets after India’s IT ministry simply asked the company to stop conducting fact-checks. After filing two right-to-information requests, and a subsequent appeal, the IFF found that the IT ministry admitted that there was “no legal basis” for issuing the two letters to Twitter. The organization subsequently appealed to Twitter to make its correspondence with the IT ministry on this matter publicly available for the sake of transparency.
Beyond this overt submission, tech giants have also gone so far as to support and promote ties to a Hindu right-wing charitable organization during the peak of India’s disastrous second wave of the pandemic. Twitter, Microsoft, and Google donated to Sewa International, an organization that perpetuates a Hindu nationalist ideology in India through its local subsidiary, Seva.
The gap between Big Tech and its commitment to democracy in India appears to be widening by the day, and it seems things will only get worse.
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On August 6, Twitter locked out Rahul Gandhi, the leader of India’s main opposition party, the Congress, after he tweeted a photo of the parents of a 9-year-old girl who was allegedly raped and murdered in Delhi. India’s child rights body asked Twitter to remove the photograph from its platform, since it revealed the identity of a juvenile victim by identifying her parents. Under Indian law, this is forbidden.
When Gandhi refused to delete the image, Twitter locked his account. In the days that followed, the official account of the Congress party, several of its leaders, and nearly 5,000 volunteers were also locked out—purportedly for retweeting Gandhi.
Gandhi’s account was eventually restored eight days later, after he submitted a letter of consent from the child’s parents as a part of the appeal process via Twitter’s India Grievance Channel. But the tweet is still withheld in India.
During that week, many questioned whether Twitter had any neutrality left. Some compared Gandhi’s tweet to an October 2020 tweet from the BJP’s head of social media, who shared a video of the 19-year-old Dalit woman whose gang-rape sparked protests. While the National Commission for Women chairperson said the tweet was “illegal and unfortunate,” it wasn’t withheld, and his account wasn’t locked.
In the event that a country’s laws are selectively applied to its politicians, and indeed, its people—what role do tech giants play in maintaining democracy? In the immediacy, as the Internet Freedom Foundation has suggested, social media platforms need to, at the very least, be transparent with all Indians as to why tweets and posts are removed. But to guarantee the rights of Indians, we need a broader solution. In January, United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres called for global rules to regulate powerful social media companies like Twitter and Facebook. That would at the very least be a start.
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