Art for Show of Farce.
Prime Minister Modi at a 2016 tech conference. | British High Commission

Show of Farce

Modi’s government goes to war with Big Tech

Prime Minister Modi at a 2016 tech conference. | British High Commission
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It WAS like a scene out of absurdist theater where the audience is aware of a truth that seems to evade the actors. At around eight in the evening of May 25, in India’s plague-worn capital, a special unit of the Delhi police descended on a locked office. Eager to ensure that their actions were adequately recorded and presented to the world, they seemed to have informed members of the media beforehand. Reporters from the country’s television and digital news stations awaited, microphones and cameras in hand. When all were available, the police attempted to gain access to the local offices of Twitter.

As could be expected of any digitally based operation in a city where the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage, nobody was present at the office. The social media giant’s employees, of course, were working from home. On May 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party had become embroiled in a public tiff with the company, when a tweet by a spokesperson named Sambit Patra purporting to reveal plans by the Indian National Congress party to make the government look bad was labeled “manipulated media.” According to independent fact-checkers, the media posted had been deceptively applied to the Congress’s letterhead and was not actually produced by the party. This public exposure in turn triggered a how-dare-you type of face-off between the two.

The laughs and chuckles come from the bungling physicality of the Delhi police’s actions. There they were, uniformed and armed, all to serve a notice to a tech giant whose entire business is located in the ethereal digital universe. No one, it appeared, had told them that tweets were not real things that could be found squirreled away in some forgotten corner of an office in Delhi or Gurgaon. There was quite literally “nothing to see here.” If the Modi government and the Delhi police had wanted the visit to be a show of force, they had misfired, producing only a show of farce. Nevertheless, irate officials of the BJP railed and argued away, alleging that the tag by Twitter was “pre-judged, prejudiced” and a “deliberate attempt to colour the investigation.”

The day after the raid, there came another affront to the BJP’s tech-bruised ego. A new set of social media guidelines, announced by the government in February, were to come into effect on May 26, including various restrictions that would allow India’s Modi-led autocracy to better manipulate social media for its own purposes. Not actual laws, the guidelines nonetheless demanded the appointment of “Resident Grievance Officers” who would provide a direct point of contact between the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. The day came and the day went, and Twitter continued to do what it has been doing—not removing the “manipulated media” label on Patra’s tweet and ignoring everything else.

WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, did not let the day pass without notice. Instead, it filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, alleging that its compliance with the new regulations—which include a rule that social media companies must identify a “first originator of information” when the government demands it—would have serious privacy consequences. WhatsApp’s position is simple: its platform sells end-to-end encryption; forcing the company to keep a “fingerprint” of every message users send would alter this central aspect of the platform. For the BJP, which appears to be in its grab-everything-to-hold-on-to-power phase, the case is yet another pushback as it tries to cast tech companies as threats to Indian sovereignty.

No one, it appeared, had told them that tweets were not real things that could be found squirreled away in some forgotten corner of an office in Delhi or Gurgaon.

To Westerners, the close-fisted and mostly unaccountable data-hoarding by Big Tech is not big news. The fact that the individual social media user stands somewhere in the space between social media companies that want their data and a government that wants the same thing is well-known. In past years, American right-wing groups not unlike the Hindu nativists of the BJP have been noisily lamenting what they perceive as left-leaning media bias in Tech. (Indeed, even as the Twitter battle was underway in India, Trump loyalist Governor Ron De Santis of Florida was signing a new bill whose provisions similarly promise to make Big Tech more accountable and reveal the “secret algorithms” it deploys.) The terrible irony of it all is that both the American right and the Indian Hindu-supremacist BJP have at their command enormous armies of Twitter trolls whose purpose is to go after anyone they see as a threat to their brook-no-opponents worldview.

The debaters who appear on the Republic TV’s right-wing program “The Debate With Arnab Goswami,” variously hosted by a woman named Rhythm and a man named Niranjan (Goswami is facing abetment to suicide charges and so does not appear himself), reveal what seven years of nationalism have done to a once vibrant liberal democracy that has fallen into rot. The Modi government is imposing a more stringent censorship regime during a time when thousands are dying of Covid every day. There is limited vaccine supply, and bodies of the poor are washing up on the banks of the holy Ganges. But public attention is being diverted by government claims that the only intent Big Tech has is to face-palm Indians and disrespect the country’s sovereignty. India wants to teach Big Tech a lesson, and this gratifying prospect is designed to keep people talking about anything but the disease ravaging them.

It is a lose-lose position. Having eviscerated institutions at home (a fact luridly visible when the Modi-controlled Election Commission failed to close polls during elections this spring in Covid-hit states), this new Indian autocratic state seems to be bursting at the seams, wanting now to control the digital sphere. The bumbling effort underway is strategically misguided. While Indians may see the war on social media as a worthwhile effort, and unlike Covid-19 a war they can win, the rest of the world, particularly the very Silicon Valley companies whose gleaming offices adorn Indian cities, will think otherwise. This clumsy overture at gobbling the digital sphere even while pretending to be an emerging democratic superpower suggests not just devastating economic devolution but political instability as well. Neither is good for business.

It’s a sudden and precipitous turnaround. In 2020, India saw 13 percent growth in Foreign Direct Investment, a number likely borne of the then in-control virus, India’s English-speaking supply of talent, and the Modi government’s generous supply of tax incentives. The government, before its transformation into a bastion of denial, was very friendly to foreign business. While its gains will not be wiped out in an instant, the general estimation of India as a place to do business, particularly in the technology and digital space, will change.

In politics and elsewhere, one must only fight the battles one is guaranteed to win. Otherwise the humiliation of loss can impose its own entirely separate traumas. It is very likely that the Modi government believes that dangling the prospect of an umbrella ban on social media will bully Twitter into compliance. It almost won against another tech behemoth last month, when Facebook blocked posts asking Modi to resign, reinstating them only when the company came under scrutiny and censure from the rest of the world. Twitter itself earlier took down hundreds of accounts associated with the massive farmer’s protest and that of the dissenting progressive magazine Caravan at the Modi government’s behest, reinstating some only after an outcry, with the company announcing their contents constituted acceptable free speech. Lessons have been learned from all this, and most of them have revealed an inept government bent on silencing its own people.

Nationalist governments inevitably run into their own borders. It is always a revelatory collision, exposing the limits of their worldview and their power. For seven years, many Indians have seen themselves as an almost-superpower ready to go up against China and even the United States. Those dreams have been crushed by the brutality of Covid-19, the traumatizing ineffectualness of a government and leader many considered great. In India, the obsession with physical borders (it is facing hostile neighbors on nearly every one) has exposed the archaic mindset behind this obsession. The frontier that is being fought over is inchoate and impalpable but more valuable as a domain than land itself.

Of course, the Delhi police found nothing at the Twitter offices. There were no papers squirreled away about why the company labeled Sambit Patra’s tweet as manipulated or the files in which it stored the font comparison revealing the forgery. The Modi government’s inability to understand the nature of the new digital frontier, and to artificially translate it into the physical and tangible, is reminiscent of the Mughal empire, which never quite understood global trade and thus what it was signing away to the East India Company 250 years ago. The Mughal dynasty and various Maharajas all wanted to make their own deals with the British, and by the time they realized their folly, they were simply in too deep. So it may be said about the epistemic colonization that Big Tech has already wrought; according to Statista, which independently collates numbers, India has the third largest number of active Twitter users in the world at 17.5 million. The number suggests that, once again, India and Indians may be in too deep.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of Against White Feminism (W.W. Norton, 2021) and Veil (Bloomsbury, 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She's written for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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