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Twitter Files 5: Bari Weiss uses a misleading NYT report to make false claims about Modi govt’s warning to Twitter to follow Indian law

Contrary to what Bari Weiss, an ex-NYT journalist herself, claims in her Twitter Files tweet, the Modi government did not threaten to jail Twitter staffers for 'criticising PM Modi', the Modi government had asked Twitter to follow the existing laws of India or be ready to be held liable for the content they share on their platform.

On December 12 (local time), Bari Weiss, Editor of The Free Press, published the fifth instalment of ‘Twitter Files‘ explaining how former President Donald Trump was de-platformed from Twitter. While giving examples of leaders from around the world that did not get banned from the platform even after instigating people, Weiss tried to insinuate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was one of them.

Bari Weiss claimed Modi Government threatened to arrest Twitter employees for “not blocking accounts critical of him”. Source: Twitter

In a tweet, she wrote, “In early February 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government threatened to arrest Twitter employees in India and to incarcerate them for up to seven years after they restored hundreds of accounts that had been critical of him. Twitter did not ban Modi.” The tweet by Weiss was not only misleading but also quoted New York Times as “proof” despite the fact that the publication has been a repeat offender sharing fake news.

February 10, 2021, New York Times published a report titled “Twitter Blocks Accounts in India as Modi Pressures Social Media”. In the sub-heading, the report said, “The platform’s problems in the country offer a stark example of the difficulty of adhering to its free-speech principles amid government worries over its influence.” This is what was shared by Weiss. No information on where this report came from, no information on the background and no information on why the Government of India suggested that Twitter employees might face arrest. Let’s take a journey back to that period to understand what had happened.

Interestingly, if we go through the previous tweets and see the examples Weiss gave to suggest Twitter was biased in banning President Trump, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed there were actual tweets listed as sources. But in the case of PM Modi and India, Weiss conveniently picked a report from NYT without giving any context. There was no direct tweet by the Government of India and PM Modi that falls in sync with the other world leaders.

The chronology of events that led to GoI vs Twitter

On January 26, which is celebrated as Republic Day, alleged farmer leaders organised a Tractor March against now-repealed farm laws. There were strict instructions about the route from the Delhi Police that the protesting farmers promised to adhere to. However, they did not follow what was decided upon and marched towards the Red Fort. Notably, Red Fort is the place where Republic Day is officially celebrated every year in the presence of the President, the Prime Minister and other leaders and VIPs.

The protesters reached Red Fort while having altercations with the security forces deployed in the capital of India and raised two alien flags. Amidst all the mess created by the protestors in Delhi, hundreds of thousands of accounts and hashtags were spreading misinformation and fake news, creating more unrest. One such tweet was related to the death of a protestor due to an accident that media houses and anti-India actors projected as shot dead by Police.

In the next few days, the Government of India, via the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), issued a series of notices to Twitter under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act to block several accounts and remove tweets that were spreading fake news and anti-India propaganda. The notices asked the social media giant to block 1,178 accounts from Pakistan peddling Khalistani secessionism during the protests. This was an addition to the government’s earlier notice asking them to ban 257 anti-India social media accounts for making hate speech.

The misuse of the social media platform for spreading anti-India propaganda, provocative content and misinformation irked the Union government. The government believes that the said Twitter accounts have the potential to cause a threat to public order. However, as per Twitter’s blog from February 10, 2021, the social media company blocked only a handful of the accounts immediately adhering to the notices but later restored many of those saying some of them were “newsworthy”. Twitter further said it would not be taking action against any media, journalists, activists, or politicians despite the government’s notice.

The Government of India got into action and informed the company that it had to follow the Law of the land. The main concern at that time was the fake news and misinformation being spread at a large scale by so-called prominent accounts. There was no attempt to suppress anyone’s freedom of speech, but it has to be understood that no freedom is absolute. In no way the Government of India could have allowed the social media platform to become the base for spreading fake news.

The GoI sent multiple notices to the social media platform, but the company failed to adhere to the Law, claiming they have to follow “their own rules to ensure freedom of expression and speech”. On February 11, sources from the GoI suggested that Twitter employees in India might face arrest if they do not comply with the laws of the land. The government warned the tech giant that its patience was wearing out over the company’s refusal to follow the rules under Section 69A of the IT Act.

However, the US-based micro-blogging giant has repeatedly flouted the rules and failed to take action against the anti-India accounts that incited violence. Citing free speech, Twitter had categorised some of these accounts as ‘activists’, journalists’, and ‘media’ and had absolved its act of crime.

Brazening it out, Twitter had said that the orders issued by the government were not inconsistent with Indian laws. Challenging the Indian government, Twitter refused to take down anti-India accounts and added that other accounts suspended would only apply to India.

Twitter fails to comply even after a stern warning

Following Twitter’s refusal to comply, the Indian government took a strong view and started on the newly developed Indian app ‘Koo’. It was reported that senior executives of Twitter met with the officials of the Indian government to discuss the issue and said they were unwilling to take action against any of those anti-Indian accounts.

During a meeting with Twitter executives Monique Meche and Jim Baker, Union IT secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney made it clear that using the controversial hashtag was neither journalistic freedom nor freedom of expression. He also expressed his displeasure over Twitter’s differential treatment in handling the problems on Capitol Hill and Red Fort.

After a long tussle between the social media giant and GoI, the social media platform finally, on June 27, 2022, blocked, banned and withheld accounts as per the notices sent by the Indian Government. However, within a week of the action against the said accounts, Twitter approached Karnataka High Court against the GoI’s orders. The matter is sub-judice in the court.

It has to be noted that Indian Law allows companies like Twitter to approach courts if they do not agree with the Government’s orders. As per September 25, 2022, reports, the Centre categorically told the Karnataka High Court that the accounts were spreading Khalistani and anti-India propaganda. The counsel for GoI said, “Examples of such content include anti-India, or seditious or any religious contents that have potential to incite violence and contents that affect communal harmony in the country, e.g. SFJ or Khalistan related content.”

The Centre added, “The petitioner Twitter claims to have complied with the directions and filed the case. But Twitter has unblocked multiple user accounts that were earlier blocked on government directions under Section 69A (AtheistRepublic, sushant_says, SikhPA, cjwerleman, standwkashmir).” Account of pro-Khalistani Amaan Bali and tweet(s) of Rana Ayyub were also withheld.

In its argument, the Centre said, “It is pertinent to note that out of the 39 accounts that are challenged in this case, one of the accounts is (Account Name @savukku). On 16.03.2021, Respondent No.1 issued a blocking direction under Section 69 A against the account @savukku for “national security” related reasons. The petitioner did not comply with this direction till June 2022″.

Furthermore, “Only on the diligent follow up of the Respondent No 2 (designated officer at the Ministry of Electronics and IT – MEITY) and upon the issuance of show cause notice dated 27.06.2022 the petitioner for reasons best known to it suddenly complied with all the blocking directions and then has challenged blocking directions for a specific set of 39 URLs.”

As per Indian Law, if Twitter or any other platform does not comply with the notices issued by the government and the Law of the land, it stands a chance of losing its intermediary status. In such cases, any content published on these platforms will become the platforms’ liability.

Conclusion:

Contrary to what Bari Weiss, an ex-NYT journalist herself, claims in her Twitter Files tweet, the Modi government did not threaten to jail Twitter staffers for ‘criticising PM Modi’, the Modi government had asked Twitter to follow the existing laws of India or be ready to be held liable for the content they share on their platform.

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Anurag
Anurag
B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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