#Anti-National—Shutting down Dissent Online: the Intersection of Social Discourse and Technology

Art by Alex Davies-Morris

On February 13th, 22 year old climate activist Disha Ravi was arrested by the Delhi police at her home in Bangalore on charges of sedition–her crime: editing and sharing a Google Doc with information about organizing and activism for ongoing protests led by farmers in the country. Ravi was officially granted bail on February 23rd, but her arrest, the most recent in a string of arrests targeting activists, journalists, comedians, and netizens alike on similar grounds, represents a swift move by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to suppress dissent by usurping how activists organize online. Furthermore, it showcases how the government can effectively intimidate netizens and hamper online discussions raising criticisms of its leadership.

Since 2012, India has shut down the Internet a whopping 519 timesmore than any country in the world. Internet shutdowns, which can last for days, cost the country billions of dollars (USD) a year, and prevent millions employed by the technology sector from making their daily wage. Furthermore, shutdowns prevent people from accessing the web–a crucial site for global discourse and information. 

Ultimately, the recent net blockades are the product of a larger legislative trend, granting the government greater oversight of social media and the web. The Internet shutdowns in India, for instance, are enabled by the 2017 Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, which “expand[s] the government’s powers for surveillance and connectivity suspension.”  Crucially, India’s crackdown on the Internet is evident of a global trend of rising authoritarianism that threatens to erode democracy and suppress individual civil liberties. 

Suppressing Journalists 

The BJP and its supporters frequently target journalists who criticize the government, often deeming them anti-national. This has manifested in frequent arrests and FIRs (First Information Reports) filed against “anti-national” reporters. In 2020, according to the BBC, nearly “sixty-seven journalists were arrested and nearly 200 physically attacked.” The harassment of journalists has also made its way into the digital world with suspensions of the accounts of journalists on social media. Vinod K. Jose, the editor of online publication Caravan, which frequently criticizes the BJP, told reporters about a notice he received from Twitter India following the loss of thousands of followers on Twitter and the subsequent suspension of his account; the letter cites a “legal removal demand” for among other reasons, “violat[ing] the laws of India.” According to the Editors Guild of India, these charges are all too familiar–several police complaints against journalists have been filed in recent years, citing “as many as 10 different legal provisions including sedition, promoting communal disharmony and insulting religious beliefs.” The suppression of journalists in print and digital media has impacted declining press freedom, over the past few years. India is now 142 out of 180 countries in global press freedom. The suppression of press freedom disguised under frequently fraudulent accusations of disrupting the peace and sedition, a colonial era tool to prevent criticism of the state, is a fundamental violation of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which protects free speech as part of citizens’ right to freedom. 

Shutting down Social Movements and Protests

The tight grip the government wields over social media has also resulted in the sabotage of social movements and protests. In Indian-administered Kashmir, the Internet Shutdown is a glaring example of the suppression of dissent through the Internet. Up until a month ago, over 7 million Kashmiris were cut off from the Internet for over 150 days. Apart from preventing Kashmiris from communicating information about the situation on the ground removed from the propaganda of Indian news outlets, the move also prevented many from accessing their livelihoods or communicating with family members.

The government’s suppression of the Internet is crucially linked to protest scenes in the country, especially over the last few years. Amidst the 2019 CAA/NRC protests, during which millions organized against the passage of bills that threatened to revoke the citizenship of Muslim citizens, multiple protestors reported having their mobiles services shut off. During the current farmers’ protests in India, many of the farmers, who participated in hunger-strikes, have had their Internet cut off by the government.

Protestors march against the CAA/NRC bills passed in Ernakulam, Kerala on December 23rd, 2019 mujeebcpy, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Even digital content creators have been subject to an onslaught of digital censorship and harassment. In 2017 and 2018, nearly 50 Indians were arrested for posts on social media. Earlier this year, Munawar Faruqui, a 29 year old comedian, was arrested by Delhi police on a fabricated charge of “insulting Hindus” in a pre-recorded video of him performing stand-up posted to YouTube.

The rise in government surveillance and censorship is the product of an increasingly authoritarian political state in India. During the past year, India has banned TikTok, WeChat, PUBG, and over 220 Chinese apps, disconnecting many, who made their livings on digital platforms, from accessing the apps that got them there. Ironically, Modi is a strong proponent of Digital India, an initiative aimed at expanding access to the Internet across the country. Evidently, bridging the digital divide comes with a price tag, underhandedly seized from India’s new netizens–their freedoms. In closing off digital networks and preventing open discourse and dissent, the government is creating an echo chamber that extends its unquestionable influence into the public sphere–a propaganda machine helped by algorithms and digital filter bubbles.

A poster at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi during the anti-CAA/NRC protests on January 7th, 2020

Highlight the Role of Big Tech in Censoring Dissent Globally

At the heart of rising Internet censorship in India and around the world is the nexus between Big Tech and authoritarian governments. Facebook has come under increasing scrutiny by netizens for its pattern of limiting posts that are deemed sensitive or critique the government and its refusal to enforce hate speech rules protecting journalists.

Take for instance, Facebook’s role in censoring dissent in Myanmar over human rights atrocities. According to a report by The Diplomat, Facebook posts with anti-Rohingya speech went up by 200 percent following the genocide waged against minorities by the military. In Vietnam, several Vietnamese activists and former Facebook officials report having their accounts banned by Facebook. In the US, Facebook has consistently enabled right-wing militant groups, while simultaneously suppressing the voices of #BlackLivesMatter protestors calling attention to systemic racism. 

In India, Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp has directly fueled the growth of right-wing populism in India. A report from the Wall Street Journal reveals how the BJP’s influence over the government is directly enabled by internal operations heads; ex-Facebook executive Ankhi Das “protected BJP politicians from action against hate speech.” Facebook also has enabled posts by BJP politicians espousing hate speech and religious bigotry to circulate the platform. Despite flagging posts deemed dangerous, politicians espousing those beliefs have been allowed to remain on the platform. Corporations like Facebook are directly contributing to the erosion of democracy around the world by enabling authoritarian governments like the BJP and their supporters to circulate hate speech while simultaneously policing those that critique the government.

A live televised television debate for Zee News, a right-wing Indian TV news channel held on February 28th, 2019

Implications of rising Authoritarian control of the Digital Landscape 

Ultimately, the rise in Internet censorship in India reflects a global rise in authoritarianism around the world. With increasing government power, prevents people from accessing veritable information and a media not largely aligned with the government. In India, the media ecosystem is largely dominated by right-wing media television houses. The unreliability of TV News was being challenged by the rise of digital alternative media. Yet, this too stands to be a temporary challenge if the Indian government continues to expand its capacity for surveillance and censorship. The situation in India should concern the rest of the world because it showcases the evergrowing domain of authoritarian governments, at odds with global democracy and the civil liberties of people across the world.