Twitter stands up to India, refuses to block journalists and media

Note: This was first published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Two weeks ago, protests by farmers in India turned violent, even as the country was celebrating the anniversary of its democratic constitution. As thousands marched and drove their tractors through New Delhi, police responded with tear gas and batons, and a young farmer was killed. As the protests drew international attention, a wave of public support for the farmers spread across social media. Indian authorities responded by harassing and even filing sedition charges against journalists, and the Modi government also ordered Twitter to block the accounts of a number of users it said were fomenting hatred and inciting violence, including media outlets like The Caravan, a magazine known for its investigative journalism. Twitter assented to these orders, but later unblocked some of the accounts belonging to journalists and media. Since then, the Indian government has increased the pressure on Twitter, warning that employees who work in the country could face potential jail sentences if the company doesn’t agree to the blocks.

On Tuesday, Twitter released a statement saying it continues to refuse the Modi government’s orders to ban accounts belonging to journalists, media outlets, and politicians who have been critical of the government’s policies. “Because we do not believe that the actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law, and, in keeping with our principles of defending protected speech and freedom of expression, we have not taken any action on accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians,” the company said. “To do so, we believe, would violate their fundamental right to free expression under Indian law.” Twitter added that it continues to advocate for “the right of free expression on behalf of the people we serve” and that it is exploring its legal options in India. The company said it is committed to safeguarding the health of the conversation on Twitter, and that it “strongly believes that the Tweets should flow.”

That final phrase, “the tweets should flow,” is more than just a poetic description of Twitter’s belief in its role as a free-speech platform. It’s a very deliberate echo of a much earlier post that expressed a similar message, one that was written almost a decade ago, in the wake of protests in Egypt that would later become known as the Arab Spring rebellion. Co-authored by Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and the company’s general counsel, Alex MacGillivray, the post was entitled “The Tweets Must Flow,” and expressed Twitter’s belief that “freedom of expression is essential.” Some tweets “may facilitate positive change in a repressed country,” the post said. “We don’t always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content.” Not long afterwards, Twitter’s general manager in the UK, described the company’s policy by saying it saw itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

As Twitter got larger and play a more prominent role in the social web, this approach came under increasing fire from a number of quarters, including those who believed the company was too slow to respond to complaints about hate speech, harassment, disinformation, and other bad behavior on its platform. And when Twitter started blocking content in Germany and Turkey and other countries several years ago, using its Orwellian “country withheld” geographic banning tools, it was roundly criticized by free-speech advocates who believed the company was going back on its previous commitment (the removal of Donald Trump and a number of other high-profile accounts for inciting violence and peddling disinformation sparked some similar criticism). Despite being forced to remove or block content, however, the company has continued to fight in certain cases for the free-speech rights of its users, including journalists: in 2015, Twitter fought a Turkish government order to block the account of a newspaper that was publishing critical articles about the president.

In India, Twitter has to figure out how to walk a similar tightrope. It obviously wants to continue to do business in India, since the country is a massive market, and it has to be concerned about potential reprisals against both the company and its employees, including fines, prison terms, and other forms of official harassment. But at the same time, it wants to be seen as a platform that supports free speech, and doesn’t just cave in to every order from totalitarian states. How should it square that circle? If the company continues to refuse the Indian government’s demands, it could be banned from the country completely, says Jillian York, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “While this may be the right moral outcome, it’s obviously not the best outcome for the Indian people.” Just another challenge that would have seemed almost inconceivable before the days of globe-spanning social-media platforms.

Here’s more on Twitter and free speech:

Public order: In a meeting with Twitter following its blog post, the Indian authorities expressed their displeasure with the company’s decision not to block all the accounts it was ordered to. And they drew a direct comparison between what they were asking for, and the removal of certain posts during the Capitol riot in the US on January 6th. A press release from the government expressed what it called “a deep sense of disappointment at seeing Twitter side not with ‘freedom of expression’ but rather with those who seek to abuse such freedom and provoke disturbance to public order.”

Never Trump: Twitter says that Donald Trump’s account will never be reactivated, even if he runs for president again, according to comments made by the company’s chief financial officer. In an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” program on Wednesday, Ned Segal said that anyone inciting violence on Twitter would not be allowed to return. “The way our policies work, when you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform whether you’re a commentator, you’re a CFO or you are a former or current public official,” he said. “When you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform.”

Join Koo: Even as they criticize Twitter, India’s ruling BJP party and its supporters have been actively promoting a competing Indian social platform called Koo as a patriotic alternative. The platform was launched last year and allows users to communicate in eight Indian languages. Many government officials have been promoting their Koo accounts, including senior ministers in charge of the IT ministry, the department that is in charge of ordering Twitter to remove accounts. “Hello folks, I am on Koo now, in case Twitter is shut in India for flouting our laws,” said Smita Barooah, who helped co-ordinate the BJP’s social media campaigns in general elections.

Modi and the press: The Indian government’s crackdown on both journalists and social media platforms like Twitter are just part of a much broader attack on the media in general, as Lewis Page wrote last year for CJR. In mid-April, one of the founding editors of The Wire, a popular independent news website, was served a court summons for making an “objectionable comment” about a state chief minister. And after a journalist in Mumbai allegedly reported a misleading story that led to a surge of traffic at Mumbai’s Bandra train station, a local court released an order stating that, although the press enjoys freedom of speech and expression, “the said freedom cannot be said to be unfettered.” 

Other notable stories:

Marty Baron, the departing executive editor of the Washington Post, admitted to the German magazine Der Spiegel that he now believes the newspaper should have been quicker to call out the lies and deception spread by former president Donald Trump. “We had to be much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity, his lies over the course of the administration,” Baron says. “We needed to call them that from the very beginning. We were very much operating on good principle… but he was exploiting that.”

Journalists writing about a “murder for hire” site on the dark web were able to warn police and the FBI about a plot to kill a man in Wisconsin, according to a report in the Washington Post, based on documents cited in court. Agents traced the IP address and other information that a woman used to set up the assassination bid, including a Bitcoin wallet that she allegedly created as part of the plot, and she has been charged with using the Internet to hire someone to commit murder.

The January 6th riot at the Capitol building in Washington was “the direct result of a months-long effort rooted in disinformation; promoted by President Donald Trump; coordinated by some of his most fervent, conspiratorial supporters; and incorporating a wide range of supporting groups,” according to an in-depth investigation by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The lab constructed a timeline of key events centered on the coordination of “Stop the Steal” efforts, using material found on social media platforms and online forums.

E. Tammy Kim talked with Burmese journalist Swe Win for CJR, about what it’s like trying to do journalism in a country that is in the middle of a military coup. He describes being shot in the leg in 2019 while on vacation with his wife and daughter, even before the coup, because an army officer was enraged by something he published in Myanmar Now, the bilingual news outlet that Win leads in Yangon. “I got word from some soldiers to be very careful,” Swe Win recalled. “I had infuriated the top.”

Some police officers in Beverly Hills, California have been playing music while they are being filmed by activists, apparently hoping that these video streams will be taken down by hosting companies over copyright infringement claims, according to a report by Vice. “Instagram in particular has been increasingly strict on posting copyrighted material. Any video that contains music, even if it’s playing in the background, is potentially subject to removal by Instagram.” The company says short clips are allowed, but its enforcement seems to have been erratic, according to Vice.

A proposed Australian law that would require payment for links and excerpts is “riddled with problems,” Owen Williams writes in an essay for OneZero. “If a major platform or web publisher would be charged for the act of linking to an Australian news outlet, it would likely result in sites actively omitting, avoiding, or blocking those links.” The regulation would also make basic, existing social media features untenable in Australia, Williams says. “A Twitter embed that shows a headline, excerpt, and photo of a news article, for example, would require payment for ‘using’ media content.”

Facebook announced on Wednesday that it has started changing its algorithm to reduce the political content in users’ news feeds. The less political feed will be tested on a fraction of Facebook’s users in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia beginning this week, and will be expanded to the US in the coming weeks, the company said. “During these initial tests we’ll explore a variety of ways to rank political content in people’s feeds using different signals, and then decide on the approaches we’ll use going forward,” Aastha Gupta, a Facebook product management director, wrote in a blog post announcing the test.

Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs magazine and a former columnist for the Guardian, writes that he was fired by the newspaper after he posted what he says was a sarcastic tweet criticizing US funding of military hardware for Israel. The tweet described how funding Israel’s military was “a law” in the US, something Robinson says he didn’t mean literally, and he says he clarified that in a follow-up tweet. After getting an email from the Guardian’s US editor accusing him of posting “fake news,” Robinson says he apologized and removed the tweet, but was later fired anyway.

Google News is rolling out a new feature called Showcase to more countries, including the UK and Argentina. The digital news digest includes both free and paywalled articles from more than 120 UK and 40 Argentinian outlets, bringing its tally to 450 publications, according to Engadget. Google’s media partners range from major news wires such as Reuters to business and politics outlets like The Financial Times and New Statesman, and newspapers The Telegraph, The Independent and Midland News Association. Participating publishers get dedicated panels showcasing their curated articles.

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