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India opposition leader says Twitter ‘curbing free speech’

The de facto head of India’s main opposition party has complained to Twitter about “strange” activity on his account.

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Image: © AFP/File Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV
Image: © AFP/File Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV

The de facto head of India’s main opposition party has complained to Twitter about “strange” activity on his account, accusing the US giant of being the “unwitting” ally of the government in curbing free speech.

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party told Twitter’s CEO in a letter that growth in his new Twitter followers “suddenly” stopped last August, falling from a monthly average of hundreds of thousands to nearly zero.

“I have been reliably, albeit discreetly, informed by people at Twitter India that they are under immense pressure by the government to silence my voice,” he said in the letter dated December 27 and shared by the party on Thursday.

He said he believed Twitter is part of an “unwitting complicity in curbing free and fair speech” but that the social media firm has an “enormous responsibility to ensure that Twitter does not actively help in the growth of authoritarianism in India”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has long been accused of seeking to suppress dissent, including on social media, in the world’s largest democracy. It denies such accusations.

Twitter said this week that India ranks fourth-highest globally in the number of requests made by the government to remove content, behind Japan, Russia and Turkey. The site is blocked in China and North Korea.

Global media watchdog Reporters Without Borders described social media suspensions during mass farmer protests in India last year as a “shocking case of blatant censorship”.

India also leads the world when it comes to internet shutdowns. Service was suspended for months in 2019 across Kashmir as part of a major security operation in the disputed territory.

The government last year introduced new social media rules requiring firms to remove and identify the “first originator” of posts deemed to undermine India’s sovereignty, state security and public order.

Social media companies and privacy activists have argued that the vagueness of the rules mean they could be forced to identify the authors of posts critical of the government. They are challenging the rules in court.

A senior Congress party official told AFP on Thursday that Gandhi’s follower count “jumped by 100,000 within two days of Twitter’s response to his letter”.

A Twitter spokesperson told AFP that the number of followers on the platform fluctuated and was linked to the removal of millions of accounts each week to tackle platform manipulation and spam.

“While some accounts notice a minor difference, in certain cases the number could be higher,” the spokesperson said.

Modi, with 75.1 million followers, is one of the most watched politicians on Twitter and regularly uses the platform to reach out to his supporters.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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