Who leads the leader?

“If you know Niraj Dave, Nikhil Dadhich and Akash Soni,” says TV anchor Ravish Kumar in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “then please ask them if they are planning to kill me.”

The letter is a follow-up to Kumar’s Facebook post where he talks of a WhatsApp group that repeatedly adds him (and others, such as Barkha Dutt) in order to abuse and threaten. Even when he leaves the group, Ravish said, they add him back on and continue the abuse.

Kumar and Dutt are not isolated victims of abusive social media groups. To cite just a few recent examples from an overflowing collection, Quint reporter Deeksha Sharma was targeted for her criticism of a sexist rap song; Times of India reporter Rosamma Thomas received threats on WhatsApp for publishing an article critical of Modi’s crop insurance scheme. A Scroll story speaks of various journalists in the Delhi/NCR region being threatened. AR Meyyammai, who wrote a story detailing child abuse in a Tamil Nadu temple, and her editor have been at the receiving end of threats.

Tavleen Singh, far from being a poster liberal, faced a barrage of abuse when she mistakenly tweeted out a fake photo of UP chief minister Adityanath drinking cow’s urine. Journalist Sadanand Dhume, again not your classic ‘libtard’, once wrote a piece arguing that trolls play a role in a democratic society; a year later he was lamenting the ‘organized smear campaign’ orchestrated by the BJP.

Hell, even Modi came in for a mild share when he posted an ambiguous statement on his personal handle in the wake of cow-related violence (which for him is something of an annual ritual) and the @PMOIndia handle then tweeted out a message to the effect that “Killing people in the name of Gau Bhakti is not acceptable”.

This is an indicative, not exhaustive, list.

In the Ravish Kumar instance, an AltNews investigation traced the number to one Niraj Dave, Managing Partner of a firm named Anjaney Exports. Dave’s Twitter handle is followed by PM Modi.

The WA group’s administrators also include one Akash Soni who, AltNews points out, has showcased on Facebook pictures of himself with various BJP leaders. The group also includes Nikhil Dadhich, who reacted to news of Gauri Lankesh’s death with a post on Twitter that, roughly translated, reads: A bitch died a dog’s death and her pups are all wailing. When this created a furor, he explained that it was not about Lankesh at all; he was referring to a street dog that had just died. When that didn’t fly, he deleted his tweet. And in the wake of the AltNews story, the WA group appears to have released Kumar and Dutt from online captivity.

That Modi follows Twitter handles trafficking in hate, in abuse, in fake news, in communal propaganda, death threats and even in pornography is not news – Swati Chaturvedi literally wrote a book on this.

Neither the dozens of media stories on the abusive cast of characters that comprise part of the 1,839 Twitter handles the PM has handpicked to follow from his personal handle of, nor Chaturvedi’s book-length exploration of this phenomenon, caused the PM or his party to blink.

The backlash following Dadhich’s post, however, seems to have struck a nerve. Various BJP worthies defended the PM, none more vigorously than the head of the party’s IT cell, Amit Malviya, who via a media release summited the moral high ground:

He is a rare leader who truly believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter.

That, regardless of your political persuasion, is an admirable position to take. Modi has every right to hand-pick who he chooses to follow, and what he chooses to consume, on social media. If he is okay with being judged by the company he keeps, what business is it of anyone else’s?

But if the freedom of speech argument is central to Malviya’s gratuitous defense of Modi’s Twitter ‘followed’ list, it is surprising that the government Modi leads gets social media giants to block dozens of handles on Facebook and Twitter.

When I brought this up in course of a conversation (which triggered this post) with a few young friends yesterday, one suggested that I was taking a hypothetical button and sewing a censorship vest onto it. ‘How do you know it is the government doing this?’ was the question.

This is how. The Internet Freedom Foundation has collated a series of increasingly querulous letters from the Ministry of Information Technology to Twitter asking for various handles to be blocked and demanding to know why the specified handles are still active.

So why did the social media site not comply? The IFF spells out the answers, and is worth quoting in full as an example of how government censorship works:

  • No notice or hearing: These blocking orders do not record whether any opportunity was provided to Twitter’s users prior to passing this order. This is required not only by Rule 8(1) of the Blocking Rules, 2009, but also by the constitutional norms which require the government to provide an opportunity of hearing.
  • Absence of reasons: While on the face of it both the letters dated August 16 and 24 contain reasons for the blocking, they are not explanatory, and are what are termed in the law as “non-speaking orders”. The reasons, beyond merely hinting at “public order”, lack any specificity. They fail to reason what the illegality is, and under which substantive provision of law the illegality is. Finally, they bunch together a large laundry list, without specifying on what reasons these individual tweets, twitter handles and trends were blocked.
  • Overbroad, pre-censorship: We are also concerned that the blocking of Twitter accounts and hashtag trends is broad pre-censorship. Twitter accounts and especially hashtag trends may not be illegal in themselves, as compared to individual tweets. Such censorship is incredibly worrying and reminiscent of the “keyword based censorship” as practiced in China. This may set a grave precedent in which certain words and phrases are scrubbed off search engines, and off our online vocabularies.
  • Lack of transparency: The Blocking Rules contains problematic language which has been cited in the past by government to prevent disclosure of blocking orders. Though the present letters have been made available on Lumen, this is a departure from regular practice which lacks transparency. We urge the government to publish all blocking orders.

On the other hand, there is an RTI query filed by the Economic Times. In response, a few of the 56 central ministries shared details about their hiring of private professionals to handle their social media accounts. The PMO and the home ministry were among those who refused to provide details. The MHA’s response is particularly revealing:

“This is to convey that MHA has been engaging consultants on short-term basis for activities in the interest of national security, including monitoring of social media content. Such activities are secret in nature and have a direct bearing on several facets of internal security. The information sought is, thus, about matters which are related to the security interests of the country and hence denied,” the ministry said in its response.  

Thus we learn that private consultants, about whom we know nothing of the extent of vetting they have undergone if any, are engaged in work of ‘national security’.

No one knows who they are, or what they do, or how much money from the public exchequer goes into their pockets. All we do know is that tax money is used to push government propaganda on social media – while the same government, on specious grounds or often without assigning any valid reasons, asks social media sites to block those whose message it finds inconvenient.

And yet this government is led by a “rare leader who truly believes in freedom of speech and has never blocked or unfollowed anyone on Twitter.”