Why India’s Narendra Modi could be Elon Musk’s biggest test

Yet while his plans have exercised legislators in America and Europe, it is likely that some of his toughest fights will have nothing to do with the West.

Campaigners say the truest and perhaps most difficult tests of his avowed principles of free speech will be how he deals with authoritarian governments in the burgeoning markets of Asia.

The platform has millions of users in Asia, including in countries where crackdowns on newspapers and television have made the app a last bastion of unruly debate and dissent.

India has some 23 million Twitter users, while there are 16 million in Indonesia, nine million in the Philippines and some three million in Pakistan.

Just as in the UK or America, in these countries, the platform is home to much of the political discourse while suffering all the familiar problems of disinformation, trolling, incitement and wholesale manipulation. This means that whatever free-speech policy Musk decides will have huge effects on politics for some of the world’s most populous nations.

“It’s a phenomenal set of issues to tackle,” explains Kian Vesteinsson at the US-based political freedom think tank Freedom House.

“Musk’s takeover of Twitter comes as governments around the world are trying to regulate online speech and dissent that they don’t like and India’s ruling BJP is an absolute example of this.

“India has the third largest user base and India’s new IT rules provide its government with the legal tools to suppress freedom of speech among journalists, opposition politicians and activists.

“Therefore, Musk’s approach in India could have huge ramifications for how Indians are able to speak freely, organize themselves and mobilize.”

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Twitter’s own figures show that India each year issues thousands of legal demands to either learn the identity of users or get content removed. The platform received 6,000 information requests and nearly 10,000 legal demands to take down content during 2020.

India is not alone in cracking down. Pakistan has also alarmed freedom-of-speech campaigners with laws targeting content that threatens the “glory of Islam, security of Pakistan, public order, decency and morality, and integrity or defense of Pakistan”. Pakistan’s authorities have also made thousands of requests to Twitter to get content taken down or suspend accounts, making more than 600 in the first half of 2021 alone. Twitter has put up resistance and does not comply with all requests, but such reluctance has only brought greater scrutiny for the authorities.

In both countries, the laws and the legal demands are viewed as a pretext to silence criticism.

Such policies may seem anathema to Musk’s free-speech sensibilities. But campaigners worry Musk has recently made contradictory comments which cast doubt on how much he will stand up to such authoritarians.

In late April, he appeared to suggest local laws should decide the line on freedom of speech after all.

“I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law,” he said. “If people want less free speech, they will ask the government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.”


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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