India's clumsy Twitter gamble

Reuters

Activists from Shaheed Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, a Hindu group, hold placards as they are detained by police during a protest outside the residence of India's Telecoms and Information Technology Minister Kapil Sibal, in New Delhi December 7, 2011. India has urged social network companies including Facebook, Twitter and Google to remove offensive material, unleashing a storm of criticism from Internet users complaining of censorship in the world's largest democracy.

 

Even for an Indian government in danger of becoming synonymous with scoring own goals, the decision to tangle with Twitter is inexplicable. Why recklessly tarnish perhaps India’s greatest asset: its reputation for being a democracy that respects liberal values such as free speech?

In my WSJ column Friday, I explain why social media–ill-mannered and contentious though it may be–enriches rather than diminishes India’s national discourse. Now, thanks to top-flight reporting by Joji Thomas Philip of the Economic Times, and painstaking analysis by Sundeep Dougal of Outlook, we have a clearer sense of what the government was thinking when it took on Twitter. (For a broader look at the equally clumsy–but less blatantly partisan–blocking of web sites, check out Pranesh Prakash’s take at Kafila.)

A cursory look at the 20 Twitter handles the government sought to block reveals a blend of staggering ineptitude and petty vendetta. (Since Twitter has no official presence in India, the government simply commanded Internet service providers to make these profile pages inaccessible.) Of the handles in question, 14 (or 70%) belong to users broadly sympathetic to Hindu nationalism or the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, including, most prominently, Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Kanchan Gupta, who runs a new web site called Niticentral.

I happen not to follow any of these people. In my (obviously subjective) view, they are either shrill and tendentious or tweet far too much to keep up with. That said, I have not come across a single tweet by any of them that would not fall within the bounds of protected free speech in a liberal democracy. Nor is there a shred of evidence to suggest that any of them has used Twitter to incite violence, the only reasonable excuse to curb speech in a democracy. (And if such evidence exists, the onus is on the government to share it.) Only in India do journalists believe it’s the state’s job to regulate taste–or clamp down on “hate speech” in TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai’s argot.

Though one can safely attribute an attempt to block political opponents to vendetta, there’s still room for good old-fashioned government ineptitude as well. For instance, why on Earth does India fear the mysterious @habibty? She has 10 followers and appears to have tweeted exactly once (rather dreamily, back in 2009): “Is trying to understand this…” The same holds for the mild-mannered Amit Paranjape, an economics and cricket buff from Pune, or Shiv Aroor, a journalist with the television channel Headlines Today.

Finally, three of the targeted accounts–redditindiaNorth East India and Assam News–focus on sharing stories from the mainstream press. As of Friday afternoon, their cumulative follower count was 5,474. To put this in perspective, that’s about 1/96th the number who follow the jumpy Mr. Sardesai. If they are a threat to public order in India, then I’m the Queen of England.

–Sadanand Dhume is a columnist for the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal Asia and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter @dhume01

 

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