New Delhi: A slew of Twitter accounts – belonging to individuals, groups and media organisations – were withheld by the social media site in response to legal demands on Monday, February 1. The only common thread connecting these accounts is that nearly all of them had been posting updates and opinions on the farmers’ protests regularly.
By 9 pm, most of the accounts were back and functional. It is not known as to what triggered the reversal of the decision.
The news agency ANI quoted unnamed ‘sources’ as having said that Twitter made the move on the request of the Union home ministry headed by Amit Shah.
In addition, the source allegedly told ANI that the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) directed Twitter to block around 250 tweets and Twitter accounts which were using the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag and “making fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets on January 30”.
This was done on the request of Ministry of Home Affairs and law enforcement agencies to prevent any escalation of law and order in view of the on-going farmer agitation: Sources
— ANI (@ANI) February 1, 2021
Several tweets containing the #ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide hashtag and the accounts from which they were made continued to be active on Twitter even after the selected accounts were withheld. It is not known why Twitter did not suspend the hashtag entirely if the Union home ministry had objected to it on legal grounds.
Several hashtags with violent overtones trend on the site daily. Hashtags which glorify Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse trended on January 30, the anniversary of the assassination. There is no information as to whether the MHA has objected to these.
Most of the withheld accounts have follower counts that run into lakhs.
Among them are the accounts of the magazine Caravan (@thecaravanindia). Accounts which had been set up to ensure smooth communication of updates from farmers’ protesting against the three laws, like @Tractor2twitr and those of the Kisan Ekta Morcha (@Kisanektamorcha) and Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Ekta Ugrahan faction (@bkuektaugrahan) were also withheld.
In December, 2020, Facebook had run into controversy after abruptly removing Kisan Ekta Morcha’s account. The site had restored it after a few hours.
The withholding of Caravan‘s Twitter account came a day after magazine contributor Mandeep Punia was detained and then sent to 14 days’ judicial custody. Journalist Pranav Dixit quoted a source as having said that Twitter did not inform the magazine about the action. This was later confirmed by the magazine’s executive editor Vinod K. Jose, who also told The Wire that the magazine’s Twitter account had never used the hashtag.
The magazine’s editors are among those against whom sedition FIRs have been registered in four BJP-ruled states for coverage of a farmers’ death on January 26, during the tractor rally.
Among individuals whose accounts were withheld are Communist Party of India (Marxist) Mohammad Salim (@salimdotcomrade), activist Hansraj Meena (@HansrajMeena), AAP leaders Jarnail Singh and Aarti (@aartic02), journalist Sandeep Choudhury (@Sandeepnewsman) and writer Sanjukta Basu (@sanjukta), Mohammad Asif Khan (@imMAK02), and actor Sushant Singh (@sushant_says).
A popular parody account, @EpicRoflDon, had also been withheld.
AltNews founder Mohammad Zubair and activist Hussain Haidry had, in respective threads on Twitter, listed the withheld accounts.
So @thecaravanindia‘s twitter account is withheld in India. pic.twitter.com/VaGun4GBg4
— Mohammed Zubair (@zoo_bear) February 1, 2021
Of them, nearly all accounts have been restored. Sandeep Choudhury’s account appears to have been deleted.
The news agency ANI reported that Twitter responded to the action with the following statement:
“In our effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a properly scoped request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in particular country.”
The social media site also said users are notified “promptly” in such situations.
Transparency is vital to protecting freedom of expression, so we’ve a notice policy for withheld content. Upon receipt of requests to withhold content, we’ll promptly notify affected account holders:Twitter Spokesperson on withholding prominent accounts incl Prasar Bharti chief’s
— ANI (@ANI) February 1, 2021
Twitter, in a glossary on the policies governing it, mentions, “If you see the above message [announcing that an account has been withheld], it means Twitter was compelled to withhold the entire account specified (e.g., @username) in response to a valid legal demand, such as a court order.”
Among those who can request for an account to be removed are “a law enforcement agent, government official, or other third-party intending to submit a valid legal request,” Twitter says.
It is not known yet why and on which legal demand the accounts were withheld by Twitter, and if the action pertaining to all the accounts were taken following a single request or more than one.
The Wire had sought a response from Twitter on these decisions, but the response received was the same as ANI‘s representation of the statement and did not add to the understanding of the situation.
Twitter has also not explained what led to the decision to restore the accounts.
The case of the Prasar Bharati CEO
Interestingly, Twitter also appeared to have withheld the account of the CEO of public broadcasting agency Prasar Bharati. Through its official account, Prasar Bharati, asked Twitter for the reason behind withholding Shashi S. Vempati’s account (@sashidigital).
However, ANI‘s tweeted report on a response from Meenakshi Lekhi, the chairperson of the Joint Committee of Parliament on Data Protection Bill, suggests that it was the Prasar Bharati CEO himself who asked Twitter to withhold the other accounts, inadvertently getting his own withheld.
When real intelligence is missing, this is what happens. It strengthens case for Artificial Intelligence mechanisms to be fair. By blocking the handle you’re victimising person who told you to take right step:M Lekhi,Chairperson, Jt Committee of Parliament on Data Protection Bill https://t.co/M352wr9Lqt pic.twitter.com/IO9K2quEll
— ANI (@ANI) February 1, 2021
By 7 pm on February 1, Twitter had restored Vempati’s account. His pinned tweet now is one which expresses satisfaction that Twitter has taken note of the hashtag in question, which he had flagged on January 30.
Good to see action taken on this issue. https://t.co/aoDYg85Vgh
— Shashi S शशि शेखर (@shashidigital) February 1, 2021
Note: This article is being updated as more developments take place.