Upping the ante on Twitter was a bad idea, likely to backfire
It is unlikely that Barbadian pop sensation Rihanna is fully aware of the context behind the farmers agitation in India, like the fact that the bulk of subsidies are cornered by a handful of farmers, or the fact that the new laws essentially give farmers more freedom in whom to sell their produce to, not reduce their freedom. It is equally true that Twitter is hardly the embodiment of free speech that it claims to be since it is up to its discretion on whether certain individuals – or tweets – are to be allowed or censored. In asking Twitter to, first, block 250 accounts and then threatening action against it when these accounts were unblocked, however, there is little doubt the government has boxed itself into a corner. Certainly, it was hurtful to see hashtags like #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide, but in whichever manner this plays out, the government will get hurt. If Twitter re-blocks the accounts, the top trending tweets will be on how India blocked freedom of speech. If it does not, and the government is forced to take action including imprisoning some of its staffers – as the government has threatened – tweeple will tweet about how India is blocking freedom of speech by using Section 69A of the information technology law ! And even if Twitter blocks these accounts – keep in mind, the Supreme Court upheld 69A even as it struck down 66A in the Shriya Singhal case – how is the government going to get Twitter to block Rihanna who, with 101.3 million followers is even more popular than prime minister Modi who has 65.3 million followers?
While the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) got into the spat when he issued a note which ended by saying “the temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags … especially when resorted to be celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible”, this was something the government should have stayed away from. Keep in mind Rihanna was, in fact, reacting to a CNN story on India cutting off internet access in areas around the capital and, as it happens, the US Embassy has also put out a statement criticizing the internet shutdown and asked the government and farmers to resolve their differences. Ideally, the government should have left it to its paid army of trolls as well as supporters to have taken on the social media outrage. As it happened, some trolled Greta Thunberg for being a self-acclaimed climate champion while supporting “farming practices that have led to poisoned land, vanishing water-table and the ‘cancer trains’.” Others downloaded a tweet before she deleted it that had detailed instructions on how to oppose the government including links that you could click on to get a pre-formulated tweet – it graciously allowed people to “feel free to tweet your own” – with Boris Johnson and UN Human Rights tagged on.
As India reforms, such tweetstorms are going to be a recurring feature, organized by not just those who lose from the reforms but also political opponents and even non-state actors, among others. The government has to develop a thick skin and ignore the noise. Indeed, it would have been better served if, right from day one, it explained the rationale for the reforms and exposed how the biggest protestors – in states like Punjab and Haryana – were the ones who cornered most of the subsidies. The government needs a coherent strategy to deal with the issue; telling off Twitter or those on it or filing FIRs against journalists – who, undoubtedly contributed to the inflammation of passions – isn’t really going to cut it.