How Twitter fell out of favour with the Union government?

Both Twitter and the Indian government are claiming to be defenders of free speech.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Twitter and India’s Union government aren’t in the best of terms of late. Problems emerged as early as in February when the government ordered the platform to remove content relating to farmer protests and to block several accounts. This was during the peak of the farmers’ agitation against the country’s newly enacted farm laws.

The micro-blogging platform first followed the government’s order and blocked a few hundred accounts. It later restored them, defending that they did not violate any of the company’s policies. The platform contested the IT ministry’s order and declined to abide by it.

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During this confrontation, Twitter lost its government relations head Mahima Kaul, who resigned the firm citing personal reasons. But the wave of digital protest continued unabated with international climate activist Greta Thunberg and singer Rihanna tweeting their views in support of the Indian farmers.

The IT ministry came back with another order to block over 1,178 accounts that it claimed were spreading misinformation on farmers’ protest. Twitter complied partially by permanently suspending some accounts and geo-blocking access to others in India; their posts could be viewed outside the country. The platform refused to take action against accounts of some journalists, politicians and activists.

In the crosshairs

Commenting on selective censoring, India’s IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad warned social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and WhatsApp to play by India’s rules if they wish to operate in the country.

In April, when India was battling the second wave of COVID-19, the IT ministry once again ordered the social media platform to block tweets, a majority of which were critical of the Union government’s handling of the pandemic amid shortage of beds and medical oxygen. Twitter responded by removing several tweets that related to mass cremations, gathering of crowds at Kumbh Mela, and shortage of beds and medicines. It geo-blocked several of these posts, keeping them visible to users outside India.

A month later, the California-based company came in the crosshairs after it flagged a BJP spokesperson’s tweet as ‘manipulated media’. Police turned up at the company’s office in New Delhi. Twitter called the move “intimidation tactics”, while the police termed it as a routine visit to get the micro-blogging site to cooperate with its probe.

New IT rules

Intensifying the chill, India enforced its latest IT rules on May 25 that mandates large platforms to create special roles for law enforcement agencies to stay in touch with the platform round the clock. Twitter had raised concerns about the new rules that they could curtail freedom of speech in the country, while the IT ministry accused the micro-blogging platform of deliberate defiance.


According to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021, the platform has to hire a resident of India to address grievances raised by users. Twitter was three weeks late in appointing its interim resident grievance officer.

It appointed Dharmendra Chatur on June 16; less than two weeks into the role, Chatur quit the firm. The company’s website doesn’t display his name, as required under the new IT rules.

If this wasn’t enough, Twitter’s tussle with the Union government escalated after the country’s IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was denied access to his Twitter account for nearly an hour on Friday.

After Prasad’s account was restored, he posted that Twitter denied access to him “on the alleged ground that there was a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the USA”. The tweet that led to Prasad’s account getting temporarily blocked is still withheld.

Gunning for the MD

In a separate development last week, Twitter India’s Managing Director Manish Maheswari was summoned by the Uttar Pradesh police to record his statement in a case relating to a video of an elderly man allegedly being thrashed by some young men and asked to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

The Ghaziabad police booked the micro-blogging site, its India communications unit, news portal The Wire, journalists Mohammed Zubair and Rana Ayyub, politicians Salman Nizami, Maskoor Usmani, Shama Mohamed, and writer Saba Naqvi, for circulating the video on Twitter. The police claim sharing the video could cause communal unrest.

Maheswari got a temporary relief after the Karnataka High Court restrained the Uttar Pradesh police from taking any coercive action against him until June 29. But the court said that the police can virtually question Twitter India’s head.

At the heart of the dispute between Twitter and the Union government is who gets to decide what goes on the platform, and both parties are claiming to be defenders of free speech. While the two have the same goal, their methods differ. And with nearly 1.75 crore users on its platform, Twitter has a lot at stake.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 11:46:26 AM |

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