Two months after teaming up with the Indian government to censor a BBC documentary on human rights abuses by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Twitter is yet again collaborating with India to impose an extraordinarily broad crackdown on speech.
Last week, the Indian government imposed an internet blackout across the northern state of Punjab, home to 30 million people, as it conducted a manhunt for a local Sikh nationalist leader, Amritpal Singh. The shutdown paralyzed internet and SMS communications in Punjab (some Indian users told The Intercept that the shutdown was targeted at mobile devices).
While Punjab police detained hundreds of suspected followers of Singh, Twitter accounts from over 100 prominent politicians, activists, and journalists in India and abroad have been blocked in India at the request of the government. On Monday, the account of the BBC News Punjabi was also blocked — the second time in a few months that the Indian government has used Twitter to throttle BBC services in its country. The Twitter account for Jagmeet Singh (no relation to Amritpal), a leading progressive Sikh Canadian politician and critic of Modi, was also not viewable inside India.
Under the leadership of owner and CEO Elon Musk, Twitter has promised to reduce censorship and allow a broader range of voices on the platform. But after The Intercept reported on Musk’s censorship of the BBC documentary in January, as well as Twitter’s intervention against high-profile accounts who shared it, Musk said that he had been too busy to focus on the issue. “First I’ve heard,” Musk wrote on January 25. “It is not possible for me to fix every aspect of Twitter worldwide overnight, while still running Tesla and SpaceX, among other things.”
Two months later, he still hasn’t found the time. Musk had previously pledged to step down as Twitter CEO, but no public progress has been made since his announcement.
While Modi’s suppression has focused on Punjab, Twitter’s collaboration has been nationwide, restricting public debate about the government’s aggressive move. Critics say that the company is failing the most basic test of allowing the platform to operate freely under conditions of government pressure.
“In India, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies have today become handmaidens to authoritarianism,” said Arjun Sethi, a human rights lawyer and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “They routinely agree to requests not just to block social media accounts not just originating in India, but all over the world.”
Punjab was the site of a brutal government counterinsurgency campaign in the ’80s and ’90s that targeted a separatist movement that sought to create an independent state for Sikhs. More recently, Punjab was the site of massive protests by farmers groups against bills to deregulate agricultural markets. The power struggles between the government and resistance movements have fueled repressive conditions on the ground.
“Punjab is a de facto police state,” said Sukhman Dhami, co-director of Ensaaf, a human rights organization focused on Punjab. “Despite being one of the tiniest states in India, it has one of the highest density of police personnel, stations and checkpoints — as is typical of many of India’s minority-majority states — as well as a huge number of military encampments because it shares a border with Pakistan and Kashmir.”
“Punjab is a de facto police state.”
Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has justified its efforts to arrest followers of Amritpal Singh by claiming that he was promoting separatism and “disturbing communal harmony” in recent speeches.
In late February, Singh’s followers sacked a Punjab police station in an attempt to free allies held there. The Indian media reported that the attack triggered the government’s response.
In the void left by Twitter blocks and the internet shutdown across much of the region, Indian news outlets, increasingly themselves under the thumb of the ruling government and its allies, have filled the airwaves with speculation on Singh’s whereabouts. On Tuesday, Indian news reports claimed that CCTV footage appeared to show Singh walking around Delhi masked and without a turban.
The Modi administration has told the public a story of a dangerous, radical preacher who must be stopped at any cost. Efforts by dissidents to contextualize Modi’s crackdown within his increasingly intolerant and authoritarian nationalism have been smothered by Twitter.
“People within Punjab are unable to reach one another, and members of the diaspora are unable to reach their family members, friends, and colleagues,” Sethi told The Intercept. “India leads the world in terms of government imposed blackouts and regularly imposes them as a part of mass censorship and disinformation campaigns. Human rights defenders documenting atrocities in Punjab are blocked, and activists in the diaspora raising information about what is happening on the ground are blocked as well.”
Modi’s government tried to throttle Twitter even before Musk’s takeover. Twitter India staff have been threatened with arrest over refusals to block government critics and faced other forms of pressure inside the country. At the time that Musk took charge of the company, it had a mere 20 percent compliance rate with Indian government requests. Following massive layoffs that reduced 90 percent of Twitter India’s staff, the platform appears to have become far more obliging in the face of government pressure, as its actions to censor its critics now show.
Musk, who has consistently characterized his acquisition of Twitter as a triumph of free speech, has framed his compliance as mere deference to the will of governments in countries where Twitter operates. “Like I said, my preference is to hew close to the laws of countries in which Twitter operates,” Musk tweeted last year. “If the citizens want something banned, then pass a law to do so, otherwise it should be allowed.”
“The main thing that the Indian government is trying to accomplish is to protect the reputation of Modi.”
Critics say that Musk’s policy of deferring to government requests is dangerous and irresponsible, as it empowers governments to suppress speech they find inconvenient. And a request from the executive branch is not necessarily the same thing as an order from a court; under previous ownership, Twitter regularly fought such requests from government officials, including those in the Modi administration.
As the manhunt for Singh and his supporters continues, large protests have broken out in foreign countries with large Punjabi diasporas, including a protest in London that resulted in the vandalism of the Indian Embassy. Despite this backlash, Modi appears to be pressing ahead with internet shutdowns.
“The main thing that the Indian government is trying to accomplish is to protect the reputation of Modi,” said Dhami. “They have a zero tolerance for anything that harms his reputation, and what triggers them most of all is a sense that his reputation is being attacked.”