Twitter is embraced across the political and religious spectrum in India. With Elon Musk now at the helm, many activists and journalists fear that the platform may be at risk.
Just a few weeks after Elon Musk completed his embattled purchase of Twitter, a video appeared on the platform showing a Muslim student in India reacting after being “jokingly” compared to a terrorist by his university professor.
“Being a Muslim in this country and facing all this every day is not funny,” the student told the professor.
After being shared by prominent activists and journalists, the video went viral, with more than 3.2 million views. Most viewers praised the student for standing up to prejudice and were elated when the professor was later suspended by the university.
Using Twitter, “we can immediately sound the alarm about any crackdown on human rights and get the word out to other concerned citizens as well as genuine journalists,” said Kavita Krishnan, a prominent women’s rights activist.
Activists and journalists are asking, however, whether the overall chaos surrounding Musk’s first few weeks on the job could lead to major changes to Twitter in India, the platform’s third-largest market, after the United States and Japan. Musk has said India is a key market for the future success of the platform.
Still, one of Musk’s first decisions at the helm of Twitter was to fire 50 per cent of its employees worldwide, including more than 90 per cent of its 200 workers in India.
Social media platforms like Twitter are the last resort for those who are still talking about the right things. I think Twitter should focus on elimination of fake accounts and also the fast resolution of problems related to sexual harassment of women online
The move severely depleted the company’s engineering and content moderation staff. Twitter India had previously relied on a small army of content moderators to monitor posts and to block accounts if they violated terms of service.
Twitter’s importance in India
Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a New Delhi-based organisation that champions digital rights and freedoms, told DW that human content moderation is key for allowing the free flow of ideas while protecting users from abuse and hateful content.
“There are not enough resources for human review to ensure that takedown practices are properly done,” Gupta said.
“In the big picture, Twitter has a very small number of active users in India — just 24 million — compared to Facebook or YouTube, which number in the hundreds of millions,” Gupta said.
“Even though its footprint is small,” Gupta said, “Twitter has a big impact because of the number of journalists, politicians and activists who use it.”
Parallel to the positive aspects of Twitter in India, social media is also used to attack minorities through hate speech and disinformation.
Investigative journalist Ismat Ara told DW that she has experienced hate speech and attacks on Twitter.
Earlier this year, a doctored image of her was shared on an online mock auction site for Muslim women and then spread on social media. She decided to post the image herself. “I am not the only one being targeted,” she wrote in the post.
Still, Ara remains a fan of Twitter.
“Social media platforms like Twitter are the last resort for those who are still talking about the right things. I think Twitter should focus on elimination of fake accounts and also the fast resolution of problems related to sexual harassment of women online,” she said.
Twitter’s legal trouble in India
Another issue that Musk will have to contend with is a long-running dispute between Twitter and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
According to Twitter, the government has been attempting to suppress dissent against the BJP by asking Twitter to block accounts that had criticised the party.
In June, Twitter argued in court that the government’s call for accounts to be blocked was not transparent and that the targeting of political and journalistic content threatened the platform’s standing as a safe space for free expression.
In 2021, the government had asked Twitter to block the accounts and tweets of organisations such as Freedom House, journalists, opposition party members, and farmer advocacy groups
The government is using the Information Technology Act to call for Twitter and other social media sites to block content in the “interest of the sovereignty of India.” Many see these laws as pretence to intimidate and silence opposition politicians, journalists and activists.
According to a recent report by the Advox project of Global Voices, an international network of online activists dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online, India is using legal requests to remove content as a “tool of control as social media becomes an important platform for discourse.”
“In 2021, the government had asked Twitter to block the accounts and tweets of organisations such as Freedom House, journalists, opposition party members, and farmer advocacy groups,” the report stated.
Musk has repeatedly positioned himself to be a free speech absolutist, someone who is against limiting speech through blocking accounts. However, after spending $44 billion on purchasing Twitter, Musk has also been focused on ways to raise revenue possibly through subscriptions or paid verifications.
Activists and members of the business community have been wondering how Musk plans on balancing these two issues. Musk hinted in a tweet in May that under him, the company would work to abide by “local laws.”
“Our rules and laws for intermediaries remain the same regardless of who owns the platforms,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s minister of state for electronics and information technology in October. “The expectation of compliance with Indian laws and rules remains.”
With almost 85 million followers, Modi is one of the most-followed politicians in the world. However, critics have accused the prime minister of weaponising social media to promote Hindu nationalism and to attack critics, journalists and the Muslim minority.
“Twitter has been an invaluable tool for journalists but has increasingly become subject to organised political manipulation. Musk’s messy takeover suggests the hastening of this process, further damaging a platform already in decline,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of The Caravan.
Wait and see
Like many social media users in India, Shashi Tharoor, a prominent politician and Congress Party MP, has been closely following the developments at Twitter with concern.
“Many are prepared to gravitate to alternatives if push comes to shove,” Tharoor told DW.
Digital rights activist Apar agrees. He thinks that if the recent cutbacks and future changes in Twitter policy lead to an increase in hate speech and disinformation on the platform, many Indians will walk out the door.
“People are weaponising the platform, leading to a perpetual cycle of divisiveness instead of focusing on shared values or events,” he said. “Without Twitter being safe place to have conversations, I do not think that the company can have success in this country.”