There was a lot of hyperbole on display on Twitter this week. Irked by news that the Indian government has demanded blocking of some six Twitter accounts, many changed their display pictures to black screens, and many others tweeted angrily with hash-tags #Emergency2012 or #GOIBlocks.

Arguably an overreaction to the government’s decision to curb misinformation or the spreading of hate speech, the move drew flak from netizens, particularly because the decision appeared to be arbitrary and was interpreted as a precursor to the kind of “pre-screening” or censorship of online Web forums, including social media, that the government had mooted a few months ago.

Perceptions apart, it appeared there was some method to the madness, at least when it came to parody accounts. In statements made to the media, government officials explained that the six accounts were profiles that closely resembled that of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the point of impersonation. They claimed that objectionable, right-wing propaganda was found on its timeline. In times of turbulence — as were seen last week when there was a mass exodus of northeast citizens from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Chennai — this could be dangerous, the officials said.

According to reports, these accounts had been blocked by the cyber security cell of the Union Department of Information Technology, and not Twitter. A few reports indicate that Twitter had suspended these accounts, but given that some of them are still live, it is not clear whether these “impersonating accounts” were blocked in the first place. However, the government has clarified that these requests date back by at least three months. It appears then that this has little to do with the northeast hate/panic campaign, which was mostly propagated through mobile text messages and specific websites.

However, given that the news of the blocking coincided with reports that the government has directed Internet Service Providers to block over 300 sites for inciting violence and communal hatred and rumour mongering, this has been widely interpreted by twitter users as part of the government’s design to use the northeast incident to stifle free speech. Of these, 30 were Twitter URLs, which included Twitter search strings too. Meanwhile, 102 of these requests were for Facebook pages and accounts or URLs.

Among the accounts blocked is ‘PM0India’, which is a parody account of ‘PMOIndia’, the official account of the Prime Minister’s Office — note that O is substituted by zero in the parody account. Those who have keenly followed this account say that though this account gained popularity for its satire, it had posted several “inflammatory” tweets and was not strictly restricted to humour. Though it is yet unclear if these Twitter accounts were blocked by Twitter or law enforcement authorities, what is obvious is that the account did violate Twitter’s terms of service.

Policy of parody

Twitter’s declared ‘parody, commentary and fan accounts policy’ includes guidelines for parody. The guidelines state that username should not be exact name of the subject of the parody, and must be distinguished with a clarifier. Twitter suggests adding “not” or “fake” to the username, and mandates that the bio clearly state that the account is a parody. The service makes it amply clear that the account should not mislead or deceive users. Yet, the parody account is very much active and appears to have had a reboot, and is back on a clean slate. In fact, it announces. “Am reborn to escape censorship.”

Amidst all the online rage over this alleged censorship attempt, there is also a lot of misinformation. For instance, a lot of anger on the Web was a reaction to the ‘blocking’ of the Twitter account of a popular right-wing commentator. However, tweets were visible to most users indicating that it was only the Web interface of Twitter for that particular account that was blocked. This means that those who followed him continued to see his tweets on their phones or other Twitter apps.

Those angered by this interpreted it as a move to stifle political dissent. Yet, many of the Twitter accounts of several right-wing commentators did not make it to the list, indicating that the focus is likely to have been on pages or links that tweeted, or even retweeted, communal content or hate speech.

It also does not help that the political class appears ill-equipped or takes an antagonistic stance when it comes to technology. Reacting to the northeast exodus in Parliament, many leading parliamentarians spoke up against technology, social media in particular. Many of them called for a “total shutdown” of these sites for a few weeks to salvage the situation, and others held the social media monster for the escalating situation.