Indian Government muzzles Twitter as Rihanna, Greta Thunberg add celebrity support for farmer protests

A farmer near barricades erected by the police that block a highway in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi, India. — Bloomberg

LOS ANGELES: Social media platform Twitter is the eye of a political storm in India after the federal government came down hard on it for unblocking accounts supporting the long-running protests by farmers.

On Monday, the Indian government’s Ministry of Home Affairs required and obtained the temporary suspension of several Twitter accounts including: actor and activist Sushant Singh; investigative news organisation The Caravan; activist Hansraj Meena; CEO of government broadcaster Prasar Bharti, Shashi Shekhar Vempati; and farmers’ rights outfits Kisan Ekta Morcha and Bhartiya Kisan Union.

In all, some 250 accounts with the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag were blocked on Monday. They were replaced with the message “account has been withheld in India in response to a legal demand”. But Twitter unblocked the accounts after 12 hours.

“If you see the above message, it means Twitter was compelled to withhold the original Tweet in response to a valid legal demand, such as a court order,” explained the Twitter ‘About country withheld content’ page.

On Wednesday, the Indian government issued a statement saying that Twitter “cannot assume the role of a court and justify non-compliance. Twitter being an intermediary is obliged to obey the directions as per satisfaction of authorities as to which inflammatory content will arouse passion and impact public order. Twitter cannot sit as an appellate authority over the satisfaction of the authorities about its potential impact on derailing public order.”

Twitter, of course, is no stranger to controversy. In the US it was the favourite platform of former President Donald Trump who used it for years of misinformation, before it eventually barred him after the Jan 6 storming of the Capitol.

Twitter has not responded to Variety’s requests for comment about its actions in India.

The farmers’ protests began in November 2020 and stem from the passing of a bill that farmers say will no longer protect them from the vagaries of the market and will instead pass control of the agriculture sector to giant corporations. The government stance is that the bill creates myriad opportunities to sell produce to private buyers.

Farmers from around the country have been gathering in their thousands outside the Indian capital New Delhi, battling the twin threats of a harsh northern Indian winter and the coronavirus pandemic.

The protests turned violent on Jan 26, India’s Republic Day. The government has routinely ordered the localised cutting of Internet access around protest sites, in order to stave government opponents of information and limit their means of communication and organisation.

Meanwhile, global celebrities have begun taking notice of the situation. On Feb 2, singer Rihanna tweeted a link to a CNN story about the protests with the message: “why aren’t we talking about this!?”

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted the same story with the message: “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.”

Their tweets were retweeted hundreds of thousands of times and prompted a government statement from India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The statement notes that negotiations with the protesters are ongoing, and that the Prime Minister has offered to keep the new farming laws on hold. “Yet, it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them,” the statement says.

“We would like to emphasise that these protests must be seen in the context of India’s democratic ethos and polity, and the efforts of the Government and the concerned farmer groups to resolve the impasse.”

“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

The statement ends with two hashtags: #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda

Bollywood stars have also been quick on the uptake, with many recycling the government hashtags. Bollywood star Ajay Devgn tweeted: “Don’t fall for any false propaganda against India or Indian policies. Its important to stand united at this hour w/o any infighting #IndiaTogether #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.”

Indian media personality Karan Johar tweeted: “We live in turbulent times and the need of the hour is prudence and patience at every turn. Let us together, make every effort we can to find solutions that work for everyone – our farmers are the backbone of India. Let us not let anyone divide us. #IndiaTogether”

Media executive and soap opera queen, Ekta Kapoor, joined in with: “Lets stand united against any propaganda. Together we can and we will!” – Variety/Reuters

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