A few years ago Narendra Modi’s supporters were bragging about his Twitter followers (which critics of course say is bloated by 60% fake profiles) being more than the head of the Roman Catholic church. Early this week the Indian government had sent lawmen to Twitter’s office in New Delhi as a warning to toe the line or face consequences. Modi is in a curious situation; he had lived by Twitter all these years, now he’s losing control over the same platform that hosts millions of his supporters. His global stage is being taken away.
The police visit was set off by labels that Twitter applied to tweets posted by senior members of the party tagging those ‘manipulated media.’ BJP Party leaders posted documents that they called irrefutable proof that opposition politicians had planned to use India’s stumbling coronavirus response to tar Mr Modi and India’s reputation itself. But Twitter undercut that campaign when it labeled the posts “manipulated media.” Indian disinformation watchdog groups had said the documents were forged.
Civil liberties at stake
Twitter responded with a statement; “We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.”
A flawed democracy
This is just the latest round of battle between Indian authorities and global media and technology giants. The country has already been tarred as a ‘flawed democracy,’ by Economist Intelligence Units (EIU). India slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking, according to the EIU, which said the “democratic backsliding” by authorities and “crackdowns” on civil liberties has led to a further decline in the country’s ranking. However, India is ranked higher than most of its neighbouring countries.
WhatsApp sues the government
Meanwhile, WhatsApp has filed a legal complaint in Delhi against the Indian government seeking to block regulations coming into force on Wednesday that experts say would compel the California-based Facebook unit to break privacy protections. The lawsuit, asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new rules is a violation of privacy rights in India’s constitution since it requires social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. The rules, which would essentially require WhatsApp to make people’s messages traceable, which would violate people’s privacy.
While the law requires WhatsApp to unmask only people credibly accused of wrongdoing, the company says it cannot do that alone in practice. Because messages are end-to-end encrypted, to comply with the law WhatsApp says it would have break encryption for receivers, as well as “originators,” of messages.
Modi and the BJP have worked for several years to corral the power of the tech companies and more strictly police what is said online. In 2019, the government proposed giving itself vast new powers to suppress internet content, igniting a heated battle with the companies.
Modi a pale copy of XI Jing Ping
Modi isn’t the only government taking on Big Tech which most countries feel has become bigger than governments in their power to influence citizens. The Chinese government has cracked down on social media with a vengeance, effectively stifling its flagship technology company Alibaba. Modi would love to have powers like Xi Jing Ping, but that can only be a pipedream given his pathetic performance across all fronts that pales before the Chinese leader.
Modi was the darling of social media and global media when he came to power in 2014 and even in 2019 it seemed that his reputation was Teflon coated as the disruptions, he caused with the demonetization and a poorly designed GST, failed to dent his popularity.
The media honeymoon is over – a global pariah
Things looked different this time around. The honeymoon with the media is over. Modi is on the covers of global publications and he wished he wasn’t there; for alongside his pictures are the burning funeral pyres of millions of Indians who lost their lives in the pandemic that turned into a catastrophe by his callous mismanagement. No one believes the government data on deaths which the global media puts at 40 million.
Modi has not only wrecked India, but he has caused global disruptions as he has stopped vaccine supplies to the poorest in Africa and other countries which had placed orders with Indian suppliers. Narendra Modi has now turned into a global pariah. Modi just doesn’t have the financial clout like China to make social media listen to his wishes; it’s a battle he can’t win. He’s in a bizarre situation; he has a platform with millions of followers which he can no longer make it bow down.