Elon Musk’s free-speech agenda could be a challenge for Twitter in India

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Elon Musk’s controversial promise to restore freedom of speech on Twitter could be complicated to implement in the United States. But it could create even bigger problems abroad in places like India.

Musk said he wanted to remove many of the rules currently governing social media sites to allow more diverse conversations, including the lifting of sanctions by former President Donald Trump. Twitter manages, “Mask Tweeted last week.

Already, some critics have warned that the procedure is too simplistic, possibly to increase site abuse. And following the government’s lead on freedom of speech will expose Twitter to political manipulation, which countries, including India, have struggled to prevent – sometimes unsuccessfully.

With an estimated 38.6 million users, India represents Twitter’s fourth-largest market, making it a significant source of potential growth, according to market research firm Insider Intelligence’s 2021 estimates. Meanwhile, India’s right-leaning government has used its regulatory power to pressure Twitter to remove messages from its critics and to remain silent on the spread of bigotry across the site.

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“Billionaires like musk and [Facebook’s Mark] Zuckerberg, who lives in a highly privileged bubble, clearly doesn’t understand how governments work in non-first world countries, “said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News, an Indian non-profit fact-checking website, adding that Silicon Valley executives do not fully understand That is how authoritarian governments seek to suppress online dissent, or how uncontrolled social media rhetoric can lead to hatred and public violence, he added.

Technology control experts say any plan to curb Twitter’s rules to be more influenced by local governments rather than higher standards applicable globally could have unintended consequences, especially in countries where governments and powerful people often put pressure on social media giants. Delete content they don’t like. Historically, countries including Russia, South Korea, India, and Turkey have consistently asked Twitter to download content. If Twitter complies with those requests, the company could actually mute weak voices in those areas and stunt the power of the social media giant to facilitate social and political change.

In India, technology platforms such as Twitter are already facing tough decisions on how to weigh the support for free expression against the protection of minority communities in a country suffering from violent – and sometimes violent – cultural divisions.

Twitter declined to comment.

“We are facing an unprecedented challenge as governments around the world are increasingly trying to intervene and remove content. This threat to privacy and freedom of expression is a matter of grave concern that requires our full attention, “said Snyad McSweeney, Twitter’s vice president of global public policy and philanthropy. Company transparency report.

Twitter says it’s stuck Content if received from a specific country “a valid and properly scoped request from an authorized entry”. “Such detention will be limited to specific jurisdictions that have issued valid legal claims or where the content has been found to violate local law (s),” the company added.

Rajiv Chandrasekhar, India’s Minister of State for Information Technology, which oversees technology companies, said in a statement that the regulator’s “goals and expectations of accountability and security and trust of all intermediaries operating in India, regardless of ownership of the platforms, remain unchanged.”

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Musk, who is the CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX, agreed to acquire Twitter for $ 44 billion late last month, although some of his public statements in recent days have cast doubt on the deal’s effectiveness. Even before the treaty was signed, however, the world’s richest man had established himself as a champion of freedom of speech.

“I think it’s very important to be an inclusive field for free speech,” Musk said in an interview at a TED conference last month. “Twitter has become a kind of de facto town square, so it’s very important that people have both the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the limits of the law.”

Critics quickly jumped on Musk’s comments, noting that it is difficult for social media giants to write content restraint rules that can be applied fairly to global audiences when the real-world effects of those rules can vary widely from country to nation. In the United States, speech is less restricted.

Social media companies like Twitter do a tough balancing act in choosing how much to comply with authoritarian or otherwise repressive regulation laws, some of which ban or censor political rivals or other dissidents. They have their own rules that apply worldwide.

In India, a government-friendly social media network has challenged Twitter

Between January and June 2021, in the most recent period, Twitter received 43,387 legal claims for content removal worldwide, including approximately 196,878 accounts – the largest increase since its first release. Report In 2012 such requests.

About 95 percent of these requests originated in five countries: Japan, Russia, Turkey, India, and South Korea. Twitter has accepted more than half of the overall requests during that time, the report said.

In India alone, Twitter received 4,903 legal claims for content removal and accepted 12 percent of them.

Experts say such requests could stifle people’s ability to use social media platforms to facilitate social and political change.

Maximizing freedom of expression means tackling some of the pitfalls, says David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a former UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression. “There are a lot of authoritarian governments out there that can’t care less about these beautiful rules.”

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The change of ownership could have far-reaching implications, especially in India, a country of 1.3 billion people led by Narendra Modi, a social-media-conscious prime minister and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Known as a Hindu nationalist, Modi has emphasized India’s Hindu history and heritage since coming to power. Meanwhile, BJP politicians have introduced some rules targeting the dress, trade and marriage practices of India’s Muslim minority.

Modi, whose more than 78 million Twitter followers have placed him on the site’s top 10 most popular accounts, often uses Twitter to present a picture of supported inclusion in front of an international audience, while his political allies use it to spread derogatory comments. Muslims.

Indian human rights advocates are warning of the growing level of online anti-Islamic rhetoric, coupled with a violent crackdown on the country’s Muslim community.

There is an economic incentive to be wary of how Twitter controls content in India. It is one of its largest markets, and the company has been tasked with expanding its global user base.

But India is also one of the handful of countries that the government dislikes, increasingly using regulatory tools to crack down on social media posts and accounts. Last year, India passed a law requiring, among other things, social media organizations, including Twitter, to appoint a “complaints officer” who will receive and respond to requests for takedown orders or information from authorities within 24 hours.

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Many Indian right-wing figures have hailed the possibility of Musk taking over a San Francisco-based company, criticizing it as liberally biased like the United States. Following the news of Mask’s ownership on Twitter, some called for the reinstatement of Kangana Ranaut, an Indian right-wing celebrity who was banned from Twitter for spreading hate speech.

“Only people who are a melting pot [about the Musk deal] Hwain cancel-culture-type snowflakes, who promote freedom of expression but practice censorship, “said Shefali Vaidya, a right-wing columnist and self-described social media influencer who frequently updates his 670,000 Twitter followers on crimes committed by Muslims. Hindus all over India. “As long as it confuses them, the Left is right with completely distorted information.”

Human rights groups and activists say the coronavirus epidemic has created a dangerous level of bigotry in India against Muslims. In early March 2020, the hashtag #Quranovirus began appearing on social media in India with #BanTheBook, citing a ban on the holy book of Islam, the Quran, according to research by the anti-hate group Equality Labs. Another hashtag published on social media is #coronajihad, which equates Muslims with the virus and identifies them as bio-terrorists, the study found.

Thanmozhi Saundararajan, executive director of Equality Labs, said Indians spread hateful ideas about Muslims on Twitter, which prompted others to organize attacks on Facebook groups and Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service.

The head of the South Asian civil rights advocacy group said, “Without making Twitter like a striking point, you wouldn’t see things hitting virality in the same way.” “That’s why I’m very concerned that Elon Musk may be reversing the norm.”

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In February, after an Indian court sentenced 38 people to death for their role in the 2008 bombings in Gujarat, the BJP tweeted a cartoon of bearded men hanging on the skulls of Muslims.

“There is no excuse for spreading terrorism,” the group said in its tweet, which was removed by Twitter for an unspecified reason after attracting widespread allegations.

Tensions between the Modi government and Twitter came to a head last year when farmers in New Delhi staged massive protests against the new law aimed at deregulating agriculture, which they said threatened their livelihoods. Officials pressured Twitter to block hundreds of accounts, and Twitter refused to block a few of them. In response, Indian officials threatened to send Twitter executives to jail for disobeying government orders.

Towards the end of that year, Twitter became more loyal to the government’s demands. The agency blocked 52 tweets from prominent public figures, many of whom were discussing the scale of the epidemic, which claimed thousands of lives in India at the time.

Amid rising ‘heartbreaking’ coronavirus in India, the government has directed Twitter to remove critical posts in response.

In one case, an opposition leader argued that the people of India would “never forgive Modi” for “minimizing the corona situation in the country and for killing so many people due to mismanagement.” In another instance, Twitter blocked Indian users from viewing a photo of a Reuters photographer showing a full hospital, mourning loved ones and a busy cremation site.

A few weeks later, police officers visited Twitter’s office in India when the company applied a “minipulated media” label to the ruling party’s tweets. Twitter said at the time that it was concerned by recent events and “a potential threat to the freedom of expression of those we serve.”

Nikhil Pahwa, an activist and founder of technology policy website Medianama.com, said he did not expect Musk to challenge the Indian government for removing the content and feared that Twitter might be less active in blocking hate speech.

“Under the pre-mask era, Twitter began to become more active in tackling online harassment and hate speech,” he said. “I’m afraid under the mask, the hate speech we see will be allowed to grow – and that’s not something the government will want to stop.”

Joseph Maine contributed to this report.

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