Elon Musk removes BBC Doc at the request of India PM Modi

Elon Musk removes BBC Doc at the request of India PM Modi

Twitter and YouTube censored a report critical of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in conjunction with the Government of India. Officials called on the Big Tech companies to take action against a BBC documentary about Modi’s role in a 2002 genocidal massacre in the Indian state of Gujarat, which officials deemed a “propaganda piece”.

In a series of posts, Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser at India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, denounced the BBC documentary as “hostile propaganda and anti-India nonsense”. He said both Twitter and YouTube had been instructed to block links to the film before adding that the platforms “followed directions”. Gupta’s statements coincided with posts from Twitter users in India who claimed to have shared links to the documentary, but whose posts were later deleted and replaced with a legal notice.

“The government has sent hundreds of requests to various social media platforms, especially YouTube and Twitter, to remove the posts sharing excerpts or links to the documentary,” Indian journalist Raqib Hameed Naik told The Intercept. “And unfortunately, the companies complied with their demands and removed countless videos and messages.”

“The government has sent hundreds of requests to various social media platforms, especially YouTube and Twitter, to remove the posts sharing excerpts or links to the documentary.”

This act of censorship — wiping out allegations of crimes against humanity committed by a foreign leader — sets a disturbing tone for Twitter, especially in light of its new management.

Elon Musk’s self-identification as a “free speech absolutist” was a major talking point for the billionaire as he tried to explain why he took ownership of the platform last year. Much of his criticism of Twitter revolved around the decision to censor coverage of Hunter Biden, the son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

While Musk was happy to stand up to the suppression of speech against conservatives in the United States — something he has described as nothing short of “a battle for the future of civilization” — he seems to be failing at the much greater challenge of to stand up to the authoritarian demands of foreign governments. (Twitter’s communications efforts are now led by Musk, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

MPs from the All India Trinamool Congress party Mahua Moitra and Derek O’Brien, who opposed the censorship of the BBC documentary, defiantly posted links to it online.

“Sorry, I was not chosen to represent the world’s largest democracy to accept censorship,” Moitra Posted. ‘Here is the link. Watch it while you can. Moitra’s post is still online, but the link to the documentary no longer works. Moitra had posted a link to the Internet Archive, presumably hoping to evade the BBC, but the Internet Archive subsequently removed the link. Since then she has audio version on Telegram.

O’Brien’s post was itself deleted.

Twitter even blocked the Indian public from seeing two messages from actor John Cusack to link to the documentary. (She remain visible to the American public.) Cusack said he “pushed out the links and immediately got backlash”. He told The Intercept, “I’ve received two reports that I’ve been banned in India.” The actor wrote a book, “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said”, with renowned Indian scholar Arundhati Roy, a fierce critic of the Modi government.

The Gujarat riots, as the violence is sometimes referred to, took place in 2002 when Modi was the chief minister of the state. A group of militants affiliated with the Hindu nationalist movement, which includes Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, launched a violent campaign against local Muslims. Modi, who is accused of personally encouraging the violence, reportedly told police to back down in the face of the ongoing violence, which left around 1,000 people dead.

“The documentary has unnerved Mr Modi as he continues to evade responsibility for his complicity in the violence,” said journalist Naik. “He sees the documentary as a threat to his international image and has launched an unprecedented crackdown in India.”

Modi’s government India regularly put pressure on Twitter in an attempt to control the social media platform. At one point, the government threatened to arrest Twitter personnel in the country for their refusal to ban critics’ accounts.

When Musk took over, Twitter had only a 20 percent compliance rate when it came to removal requests from the Government of India. When the billionaire took the company private, some 90 percent of Twitter India’s 200 employees were laid off. Now the pressure from the Indian government on Twitter seems to be gaining momentum.

An important difference may be Musk’s other business entanglements. Musk himself has his own business interests in India, where Tesla has so far lobbied without luck to win tax breaks to enter the Indian market.

Whatever the reason for the apparent change, Twitter’s actions at the behest of the Modi government bode poorly for Musk’s claims that he runs the company with the aim of protecting free speech. While Musk felt fine wading into America’s culture wars on behalf of conservatives, he was much more reluctant to take a stand on the far worse threats to free speech from autocratic governments.

One of the initial strengths of Twitter, and social media in general, was the threat it posed to autocratic governments, as evidenced by its use during the 2009 protests in Iran and later during the Arab Spring. Dictators across the region railed against the company for allowing what they perceived as banned speech.

However, Musk has said he abides by local laws on speech issues. “As I said, I prefer the laws of the countries in which Twitter operates,” Musk said tweeted last year. “If the citizens want to ban something, pass a law to do it, otherwise it should be allowed.”

Google, owner of YouTube, is also under heavy pressure from the Indian government. The company’s public transparency reports show that the Indian government has been a great source of content removal, with more than 15,000 censorship requests since 2011, compared to less than 5,000 from Germany and nearly 11,000 from the US in the same time frame.

These reports show a varying level of compliance from Google: Between January and June 2022, Google censored nearly 9 percent of items submitted by the Indian government, but almost 44 percent during that period in 2020. YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment .

Akshay Marathe, a former spokesperson for the opposition party that controls the government of Delhi and Punjab, told The Intercept that the social media takedown requests were part of a wider program of crackdowns. Modi “quite brutally used India’s law enforcement apparatus to regularly jail political opponents, journalists and activists,” Marathe said. His instruction to Twitter to remove all links from the documentary (and Twitter’s shocking compliance following Elon’s commitment to free speech) also follows on the heels of the Modi government’s announcement that it will soon implement a regulatory regime in which it will will have the right to determine what constitutes fake news and to order Big Tech platforms to remove the content.”

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