Indians have a lot to argue over, but there’s one thing they seem to agree on these days: Twitter has an India problem.
Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attack the California-based company for flagging dubious claims by ruling Bharatiya Janata Party officials. They also don’t like that Twitter moderators seem to drag their feet when New Delhi demands that the company censor tweets and block accounts. BJP critics castigate the platform for doing too little to defend their free speech or combat Hindu nationalist disinformation. Economic nationalists want to start a homegrown rival as part of a larger goal to dilute the power of U.S. tech firms. Their implicit role model is China.
It’s fair to worry about Twitter’s outsize ability to shape political outcomes, and the company has itself to blame for stoking fears with heavy-handed actions—including the decision to ban Donald Trump. Indians aren’t the only ones worried. Last week the Nigerian government suspended Twitter indefinitely after its moderators deleted a tweet by the country’s president for violating Twitter’s abusive-behavior policy.
Nonetheless, the Modi government appears to be playing a game of chicken with the Silicon Valley giant that the country cannot afford to win. Should New Delhi ban Twitter—or effectively do so by inducing it to exit with unreasonable demands—India will be the ultimate loser. In global perceptions, this would place India in the dubious company of Iran, China and North Korea. Ordinary Indians, including those urging the government to get tough with the company, would be robbed of a valuable window on the world. Indian dissidents, cartoonists, writers and journalists would lose one of the few spaces left where they can express themselves freely.
The current standoff comes against the backdrop of Mr. Modi’s bungled response to the pandemic—and his roasting on Twitter over it. According to official records, as of Wednesday about 360,000 Indians had died of Covid-19. Experts say the true count is likely much higher. Faced with oxygen shortages in hospitals, long lines at crematoria and grisly images of bloated bodies floating in the Ganges, many Indians have taken to Twitter to vent their anger. Opposition politicians and critics of the BJP have joined them. Public outrage has forced even usually obsequious TV news channels to question the government.