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Indian Lawmakers Concerned Social Media May Interfere In Elections


In India, some politicians are very angry at Twitter. They're accusing the tech giant of suspending more accounts of right-wing voices than left-wing ones. Twitter denies that and has sent its global vice president to testify before Indian lawmakers today. NPR's Lauren Frayer is on the line from New Delhi and joins us. Hi, Lauren.


GREENE: So where's this anger coming from?

FRAYER: Well, India is a place where there has been a lot of incitement of violence online. Rumors, fake news have spread like wildfire through social media, and they've led to violence. They've led to lynchings and mob killings by the dozens across India. And so some people blame the platform. They blame Twitter. They also blame other social media apps, like Facebook, and the text messaging app that it owns, called WhatsApp, for this violence.

And so Twitter says it's being really, really careful now. It won't hesitate to suspend accounts. It says safety and saving lives is a priority. But some Indians say Twitter is cracking down unfairly now on right-wing voices.

And here's how one protester explained it at a demonstration - there have been a lot of them - outside India - outside Twitter's India headquarters earlier this month.


FRAYER: So she's saying in Hindi that she believes that accounts that support the Hindu nationalist ruling party, the BJP, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, she believes those accounts are getting shut down by Twitter more frequently than left-wing accounts are.

Now, Twitter says that's not true, it's not discriminating. When it sees hate speech, it takes action. All of this matters a whole lot right now in India because elections are coming up. And elections are scheduled, expected in April or May. A date has not yet been set.

GREENE: Well, let's just take the argument that some people are making a step further, if they're saying that this is - you know, some of the shutting down of accounts is based on politics, and you're telling me there's been fake news that's been spread on Twitter, I mean, could this really undermine the whole democratic process if we're having an election coming?

FRAYER: You bet. It could. Absolutely. And everybody is on guard for that. In the U.S., you know, as you well know, there are allegations - or the allegations of election interference were foreign in nature, of Russian manipulation in the 2016 U.S. election here. Here, the concerns are different. They're that these big, Western tech companies could influence the election here. And so the Indian government wants to turn the tables.

The Indian government doesn't want Twitter to decide what's improper online in India and what's not, and so the Indian government has proposed these new rules that would allow the government itself to police the Internet here. It would be able to order companies like Twitter, like Facebook, to take down, within 24 hours, any content that affects, quote, "the sovereignty and integrity of India."


FRAYER: That's really, really, broad, right?

GREENE: Yeah. That's not something the companies are going to respond to all that well.

FRAYER: Right. Exactly. I mean, critics call this or compare this to Chinese-style government censorship. The rules aren't yet law. The government is still in talks with tech companies. But as you rightly point out, the tech companies are not happy with this, and they're lobbying against this.

Keep in mind, India is one of the world's biggest Internet markets. There are 1.3 billion people here. This country has more WhatsApp users than anywhere else in the world. And so what India requires of these apps affects the bottom line for some of the biggest tech companies in the world.

I mean, also India is the world's biggest democracy. What India does here sets an example for how other countries deal with free speech online.

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, sets a precedent. Also, I mean, we're just dealing, it sounds like, just dealing with so many questions that are on the table in so many parts of the world. So what exactly happens today?

FRAYER: So there was a closed-door hearing before a committee of the Parliament today. The participants have just walked out. Twitter's Global Vice President Colin Crowell filed out afterward, didn't talk to the media outside. Neither did the Parliamentary Committee chairman, Anurag Thakur. He's a ruling party lawmaker, has expressed a lot of anger at Twitter in the past.

This conversation is not over. Another hearing is scheduled for March 6. That's next week. And this time, India has called Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram to testify, as well.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Lauren Frayer in New Delhi. Lauren, thanks.

FRAYER: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.