While Twitter's exit from India may have seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago, it's certainly well within the realm of possibility now.
Twitter is treading on thin ice. The social network is in the dock for supposedly not following the government’s directive to take action against several accounts in India. The reason for this directive has not been publicly revealed, given that the order was passed under Section 69A of the IT Act, which is essentially an act to protect India’s security and sovereignty through secret orders. The government has raised the possibility of a seven-year jail term for Twitter India. Who exactly might be jailed is also a secret, given that there is no official record of such a warning.
Like fellow US tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, there is a lot at stake for Twitter in India. While Amazon has poured more than $8 Bn into the Indian market to win the ecommerce race, Twitter is currently fighting for survival. Whether it can emerge unscathed out of its India predicament is anybody’s guess.
So, Twitter is treading on thin ice.
To be precise, the ice has been thinner before, but thanks to a chain of events in the US, the chips fell in Twitter’s favour at the time. As Donald Trump lost the US Presidential race, Twitter managed to extricate itself from a tricky spot (that of enabling riots in Washington, D.C.) and saved face by banning Trump’s account and taking equally severe action against many of the accounts which violated its policies on hate speech.
But in India, the Silicon Valley free-speech tiger is a bit of a quiet cat, unsure whether it can show off its shiny coat but keenly aware that there may never be another home like this. Indians are an argumentative lot, and Twitter is, in many ways, an embodiment of that nowadays. The social media giant wants a huge piece of India, and it has bent over backward in the past. But this time, it may have to bend to the point of breaking.
Having reinstated the accounts it had so publicly ‘withheld’ on Monday, February 1, Twitter is now going through a litmus test it never did in the US.
The protests had already drawn international attention and then came the tweets from Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Meena Harris (niece of US Vice-President, Kamala Harris) about the internet shutdown, the secret arrests, the deaths of farmers and the barriers around Delhi, the country’s capital. In response, the government released an official statement calling these tweets propaganda. And then came scores of messages supporting the government. The government’s push-back was unprecedented as celebrities from every corner of the world tweeted about how India handled its “internal matters”.
Even Sachin Tendulkar went on Twitter to say that the farmer’s protest is “an internal matter”. Indian cricket team’s captain Virat Kohli also tweeted in support of the government, though he steered clear of using the one hashtag that had the term “propaganda”.
Karan Johar tweeted a similar message. Incidentally, he was a target of vicious online trolling and scapegoating in the aftermath of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death that was spun into a political leverage point.
The ones who recall the government’s swift invoking of celebrities and athletes for support on social media for national debates in the past may not be surprised.
Spelling Doom In 280 Characters
Perhaps one might say that Twitter has shot itself in the foot by kowtowing to the people in power. And they might have a point. In the past, the social media platform was accused of suppressing voices from minority communities (just as much as it has been accused of the same by majoritarian right-wing groups). It only ousted Trump once he had exhausted his political capital. So it did not exactly take a bold stance even in that case.
Fortunately, the company has not let emotions run high in its public statements after it was criticised for suspending some accounts. The company merely said that its hands were tied by law. But somehow, a few hours after over a dozen accounts were withheld in India, they were back and tweeting. Now, the government is up in arms about this and could even jail Twitter India executives — who exactly, it is not clear. If Twitter has knowingly violated an order under Section 69A, there could be more repercussions.
The same section was invoked when banning Chinese-origin apps and games from June 2020 onwards. And the reason cited was a threat to the sovereignty of India and national security. Whether the current tweets around farmers’ protests fall in this category is not what we are debating here. The fact is, if the same Section 69A has been used to force Twitter to withhold accounts, we may see further action being taken against the company.
The irony here is that much of the government’s popularity stems from its presence on Twitter and Facebook. Will Narendra Modi ban a platform that he uses to engage with more than 100 Mn followers across his many accounts? It is not just Modi. A lot of online mobilisation happens on Twitter these days, and debates on tweet threads often determine the political zeitgeist.
As Modi and the BJP — or even Trump and Barack Obama in the US — have seen during the past couple of national elections, the 280 characters on Twitter are more than essential to hit that magic 277 majority number in India.
What If Twitter Quits India
If indeed Twitter has to do an about-turn and actually give in to the government’s demand owing to the pressure of potential jail time, it is likely to affect its reputation in the western world. So let us assume for a second that it does not bend but breaks and walks away from India.
Perhaps, the most concerning part is that the Indian internet ecosystem is so desensitised to bans, content takedowns and internet shutdowns that Twitter’s exit — if at all — may not actually remain on the radar for too long. While Twitter’s exit from India may have seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago, it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility now.
Will India look at homegrown platforms to replace Twitter?
There is some noise about Tooter, which is hailed as a swadeshi microblogging platform, but its antecedents are murky to say the least. Plus, the name itself sounds like a parody. In any case, recreating the furtive discussions on Twitter would require both sides of the aisle — and others around the world — to sign up and join the discussion. By the looks of it Tooter does not have that appeal.
Microblogging platform Koo is also looking to fill the gap with its focus on regional languages. The app raised $4 Mn in its Series A round this week to expand its presence and spread awareness about the app. Interestingly, PM Modi also mentioned this app in a recent national address. Will Koo be India’s answer to Twitter?