Home Indian News Fears of selective clampdown ahead of elections as X accounts supporting farmers protest suspended

Fears of selective clampdown ahead of elections as X accounts supporting farmers protest suspended

Fears of selective clampdown ahead of elections as X accounts supporting farmers protest suspended

Dozens of accounts on social media platform X have been suspended in India for backing farmers’ protests, with rights groups and those affected calling the step a worrying crackdown on dissent that could fan communal hatred as an election nears.

The platform, formerly known as Twitter, did not provide details, but said in a statement last week it had to “act on specific accounts and posts, subject to potential penalties including significant fines and imprisonment”.

“However, we disagree with these actions and maintain that freedom of expression should extend to these posts,” it said, adding that the government’s “lack of disclosure can lead to a lack of accountability and arbitrary decision-making”.

India’s ministries of interior affairs and information technology did not respond to requests for comment.

This is among the first public statements from X on Indian regulations governing online content since the platform was acquired by billionaire Elon Musk in 2022.

X has a pending appeal in an Indian court against previous orders to block accounts and remove posts, including those that backed farmers’ protests in 2021, and tweets critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The statement sends a signal that the platform is pushing back, even though it appears to have complied with the government orders,” said Prateek Waghre, executive director at Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group in Delhi.

“It’s rare for a big tech firm to comment publicly on the IT Rules, which has changed the calculation pretty significantly for companies because the risk for non-compliance is so high,” he told Context.

The Information Technology Rules of 2021 which were amended last year, give authorities greater control over online content, requiring speedier removals on social media platforms, and greater risk to sites’ safe harbour protections that shield them from liability for content, if they fail to comply.

India, with nearly 24 million X users, had among the most content removal orders and information requests on user data from January to June of 2022, X has said, the last time it released such data.

For Hansraj Meena, an Indigenous rights activist whose X account was withheld last week, there is a sense of déjà vu: his account was also suspended in 2021 during the farmers’ protest.

A separate X account he maintains for Indigenous issues with nearly 300,000 followers has also been withheld.

“With the accounts withheld, we cannot publicise the many challenges that farmers, Dalits and Adivasis face in the country,” said Meena, who has nearly 700,000 followers on X.

“They have silenced me it feels like I am dead.”

Tractors, teargas

Thousands of Indian farmers demanding higher prices for their produce have camped 200 km (125 miles) north of Delhi after police blocked their march to the national capital, and fired tear gas and water cannons at the demonstrators.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made offers for talks.

By suspending the X accounts of activists and farmers’ groups, the government is tacitly fanning the spread of disinformation and abuse aimed at the protesters, many of whom belong to the Sikh religious minority, said Bhavjit Singh, who handles several pro-farmer X accounts that have been withheld.

Singh, like most of the protesters, is from the western state of Punjab, and says the social media accounts are key to countering a narrative by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party that brands some of the protesters as separatists, a charge the demonstrators deny.

“If the government really wants to fight misinformation, they should also block the accounts that are spreading lies and hatred about the farmers, and Sikhs in general,” said Singh, a tech professional who set up the @Tractor2twitr account during the previous farmers’ protest. That account was suspended.

“We are being portrayed as dangerous criminals and terrorists online. This demonising of the entire Sikh community is dangerous, as history shows,” he said, referring to unrest in 1984, following the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in which thousands of Sikhs were killed.

With a general election due by May, disinformation and hate speech targeting religious minorities, particularly Muslims, are on the rise, fact-checkers and tech experts have said.

The concern is that the government’s regulations are being applied selectively, with little transparency around whose accounts are blocked, and what content is taken down, said Waghre.

“This is very worrying for a country that is heading into elections,” he said.

Meanwhile, Singh and his team are getting the word out through the Telegram and WhatsApp messaging apps, and setting up new accounts on X.

“We’ve been creating backup accounts as quickly as they are taken down,” he said.

“But perhaps Elon Musk needs to consider this: if a country is not allowing a social media platform to function with a proper regard for freedom of speech, but is allowing misinformation and hate speech to flourish, then it’s perhaps best to shut down the platform entirely in that country.”

This article first appeared on Context, powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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