A documentary produced by the BBC, reported to examine the role that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have played in a 2002 communal riot in Gujarat, has been described as an anti-Indian “propaganda piece” by the government in New Delhi. All links to the film and footage have been ordered banned on social media.
On Wednesday, both Twitter and YouTube complied with the Indian government’s censorship request. As a result, posts from about 50 Twitter accounts were removed – including those by activists, politicians, and even the Hollywood elite. In addition, an unspecified number of YouTube channels were also affected, the Guardian reported.
Clips of the documentary, which alleged that Modi – then chief minister of Gujarat, had enabled and then failed to stop the violence that resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,000 Muslims – have disappeared almost entirely from Indian social media.
Not Exactly New Revelations
It has been noted that nothing actually said in the documentary by the UK foreign office was particularly new, yet this is still an example of how government officials around the world don’t like to see old dirty laundry aired out in public.
“The U.S. also had sanctions on Modi and had revoked his visa based on its characterization of him as ‘responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom,'” explained Dr. Joyojeet Pal, associate professor of information at the University of Michigan.
“It could be argued that social media can play a significant role in also bringing back the old perception of Modi, especially outside of his core supporters,” Pal told this reporter via an email, adding that “In the last decade, the image of the old strongman Modi has gone through a significant rebranding, partly by presenting him as a development-oriented leader (rather) than as a Hindu sectarian, and social media played a central role in this.”
Free Speech Absolutism
Perhaps the bigger part of the story is now how quickly Elon Musk, who took Twitter private last year after he acquired the social media platform for $44 billion, responded to the calls from New Delhi to remove the links.
“It is not possible for the social media platforms to push back against the Indian government,” suggested Pal. “For one, India is the single largest subscriber base for Whatsapp, Youtube, Facebook etc. and they need to do business in India. The current laws also allow for an appointee of the government to require the platforms to take things down, so it’s arguable they don’t have the choice in the matter with regard to what is made available.”
Musk may also be learning the hard way – or at least the expensive way – that it is hard to balance his personal principles and convictions with the laws and demands of sovereign nations.
“When it comes to a request from a foreign nation, Musk has less control than he probably likes,” said Jennifer Grygiel, associate professor of communications at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
“He can say all day he is a free speech absolutist, but sovereign nations are sovereign spaces that have control of their Internet service providers and how people can access those services,” Grygiel explained. “He isn’t a child trying to open a lemonade stand.”
In other words, for Musk to operate in India, he must follow their rules and institutions. The United States Constitution’s First Amendment doesn’t apply overseas, and free speech absolutism doesn’t transcend sovereignty. As such, Twitter simply cannot operate in India by being in contravention of Indian regulation.
“If he chose to take on that fight, the Indian government can technically shut Twitter down,” Pal continued. “What Musk has done in regard to India is open up the accounts of some of the egregious spreaders of hate speech, including the pro-government celebrity, Kangana Ranaut, who was banned by the previous Twitter administration for her use of extreme speech on the platform.”
Pal further noted that since it was never objected to by the government, it was a case of unilateral action by the platform than by the law of the land, which can be used selectively by the government against its critics, while enabling those that spread hate speech that suits the position of the ruling dispensation.
“This essentially says that outside of those countries where free speech will not be prosecuted by the state, Musk is a free speech absolutist so long as it works within his business interests,” said Pal.
Bans Of Foreign Media Are Normal
A final consideration is that it isn’t uncommon for nations to ban what they essentially see as information shared by another country’s “state media,” in this case, the BBC.
“The content it produces is funded by the British government,” said Grygiel. “We’ve seen that what is happening in India thus isn’t really all that unusual. There have been restrictions placed on Russian state media by the European Union.”
And while there will always be certain kinds of hateful and offensive speech that is country-specific and platforms may not have the bandwidth to control its spread.
“However, this is not the case here,” said Pal. “The attempt to control a certain kind of speech is of what is inconvenient to the ruling dispensation, perhaps comparable to the banning of Al Jazeera because it presented a perspective that was inconvenient to the ruling party in the United States.”