Twitter on Monday blocked access to dozens of Indian accounts posting about an ongoing agitation by farmers, reportedly at the orders of the federal government, amid fears of protests on the social media platform spilling onto the streets in a repeat of last week’s violence at the heart of the nation’s capital.
The Hindustan Times reported that the order has come from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology and applicable to nearly 250 accounts that allegedly amplified a hashtag that could have disturbed peace. Under India’s IT Act, the government reserves the power to “impose reasonable restrictions” on accounts that pose a threat to national security.
Among the handles that were withheld were those of news magazine Caravan, farmers’ unions Kisan Ekta Morcha and Bharti Ekta Ugrahan, film actor Sushant Singh, political activist Hansraj Meena, former lawmaker and Communist leader Mohammed Salim, Aam Aadmi Party politicians Jarnail Singh and Preeti Sharma Menon, the official handle of the Communist Party of India in Puducherry territory, and CEO of India’s state broadcaster, Shashi Shekhar.
It’s not immediately clear why the account of the head of broadcaster Prasar Bharti was restricted, but according to local news reports, it could have been an oversight on the part of the social media company.
The crackdown is seen as a security measure to control the law and order situation in an already skittish national capital, Delhi, after hundreds of accounts trended the hashtag "Modi Planning Farmer Genocide" over the weekend. According to media reports, Twitter received a legal notice from the federal government to block close to 250 accounts.
Some social media users in India said they saw it as government overreach and creeping intolerance in a country where journalists and a top politician have recently come under state ire for what the government and police claim as erroneous reporting of the death of a farmer who died during violent clashes on 26 January, the annual Republic Day, at the historic Red Fort.
Journalists and activists slammed the move even as the hashtag “Restore Hansraj Meena” began to trend.
“Twitter India says that we suspend accounts on legal demand. This means that the legal demand government. #RestoreHansrajMeena,” tweeted the account of Gaon Dastak, a rural news platform.
“There can’t be different standards for different democracies as far as importance of free speech in a democratic setup is concerned! How many accounts of social activists challenging will of the Govt hv been withheld in USA? Don't be a stooge of Govt @jack!” tweeted Tejaswi Yadav, leader of opposition in the eastern state of Bihar.
The suspended accounts display the message, “have been withheld in India in response to a legal demand,” sparking speculation that the request to block them have directly come from the government of India.
Twitter emailed a statement to the India Today news portal that said, "if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorised entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time."
This is in line with Twitter’s official stated position on this on their blog: “Such withholdings will be limited to the specific jurisdiction that has issued the valid legal demand or where the content has been found to violate local law(s).” The accounts however, can be accessed from outside India.
Notably, Twitter suspended the account of former president of the United States, Donald Trump, and thousands of others, following violence at the Capitol Hill on 6 January. It has in the past suspended permanently or temporarily accounts due to a range of reasons — from harassment and violation of its privacy laws to carrying out terrorist strikes.
In 2017, it permanently suspended the accounts of Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, leader and deputy leader of the fascist group Britain First. In the same year it also suspended, permanently, the account of the American Nazi Party. It has in the past banished from its site users who posted anti-Muslim hate speech, and those who used the platform for white supremacist propaganda.
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