India uses cyber volunteers to silence critical voices: report

The group that managed the Hindutva Watch Twitter account – which reported cases of violence and fanaticism by Hindu nationalist groups – had a long history of being mistreated and trolled for content critical of the Indian government.

But even they were stunned when the account, with nearly 26,000 subscribers, was abruptly suspended in April of this year for no reason.

The suspension of this, and dozens of accounts deemed critical of the government, came shortly after the launch of a cybercrime volunteer program by India’s Home Office (MHA) to report the illegal or illegal online content, Reuters news agency reported on Monday. .

Citizen volunteers, or “Good Samaritans”, are required to maintain “strict confidentiality” and report child pornography, as well as online content “disturbing public order” or religious harmony, and contrary to law. integrity of India, the MHA said, according to the report.

For activists, journalists and other government critics, it has become more difficult to distinguish between trolls, the computer cell of the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party and cyber volunteers – estimated in the hundreds.

“For us, Twitter was important in exposing communitarianism, hate speech, fake news and pseudoscience propagated by right-wing forces,” said a spokesperson for Hindutva Watch who asked not to be nominated for security reasons.

“For that, we have been trolled, mistreated, threatened. Online self-defense mechanisms track down accounts that criticize the BJP or the RSS, label them anti-national and pressure to suspend them, ”the spokesperson said.

RSS refers to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the far-right ideological mentor of the BJP.

Complaints about posts are assessed in accordance with Twitter’s terms of service and Twitter policies, and “any content found to be in violation is handled in accordance with our range of enforcement options,” a spokesperson said. from Twitter.

The MHA did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Digital warriors

The BJP came to power in India in 2014 and won an even bigger margin in 2019, its victories attributed in large part to its savvy computer and social media prowess, fueled by thousands of supporters it calls ” yodhas ”or digital warriors.

Modi, 71, is known to be tech-savvy, with 73 million followers on his personal Twitter account, and follows several individuals known to harass those who criticize his government, and who often say in their profiles that they are “proud. to be followed by Modi ”.

“The cyber volunteer program goes beyond simply silencing people,” said Swati Chaturvedi, a freelance journalist who wrote a book on BJP’s social media strategy and her experience of being trolled.

“But it’s actually a very smart move, because they can continue to intimidate dissent online without coming under more scrutiny themselves,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More than half of India’s 1.3 billion people have access to the Internet. The country has more than 300 million Facebook users and 200 million on Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service – more than any other democracy in the world.

About 22 million Indians use Twitter, according to Statista.

India, like other countries, recently introduced laws to limit so-called disinformation and to censor content which is deemed critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

China launched a hotline this year for citizens to report online comments defaming the ruling Communist Party, while Vietnam has implemented guidelines encouraging people to post positive content about the country and banning posts that “Affect the interests of the state”.

India this year introduced new rules activists say they violate privacy rights by requiring social media companies to identify users to authorities, following government requests to remove posts criticizing its handling of COVID-19.

Whatsapp has filed a complaint against the rules.

But the government’s cyber volunteer program is perhaps the most insidious step yet and risks turning the country into a surveillance state, said Anushka Jain, associate lawyer with the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group.

“We already have a cybercrime law – so it’s not necessary. It’s just cyber vigilantism, and it’s dangerous because it pits citizen against citizen with no way to ensure that someone isn’t just using it for their personal vendetta, ”Jain said.

“Anyone can become a volunteer without prior verification, and there is no clear definition of what anti-national content is. This program will only create a secret police like the Stasi in East Germany in present-day India, ”she said.

“Surveillance state”

Three years ago, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced plans to establish a social media communications hub that monitor online platforms and analyze all communications in real time.

The proposal was challenged by a member of an opposition party who said it would violate privacy and create a “surveillance state”. The plan was withdrawn by the government, which had argued that the hub would help overworked police prevent crime.

Since then, the government has increased the pressure on social media companies: Twitter removal requests have been steadily increasing since 2014, and India submitted the most content removal requests in 2020, according to Twitter data.

India also tops the list of government requests for information on Twitter in the second half of 2020, overtaking the United States for the first time. These requests may include requesting the identities of people tweeting under pseudonyms.

Facebook received more than 45,000 data requests from the Indian government from January to June of this year, up from around 3,000 requests for the same period in 2013, according to its data.

Several farmers – and their supporters – protest against new agricultural laws earlier this year, their Twitter and Instagram accounts were blocked at the behest of the government, including the handle @ standup4farmers.

Dozens of activists and journalists in India were also found to be targeted by the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli tech company NSO, which turns a cell phone into a surveillance device.

Authorities declined to say whether the government bought the technology, saying only that “there is no unauthorized surveillance.”

Meanwhile, authorities in several Indian states have recently said they will deny passports and government jobs to people for their “anti-national” or anti-social posts online.

” The objective is silence by intimidation, as well as creating a false narrative of supporting government views, ”said Mirza Saaib Beg, an Indian-administered Kashmiri lawyer who has been trolled and harassed for his criticism of the government.

“There is no clear definition of what illegal activity is that can get a person in trouble. Likewise, there is no definition of what is anti-national – it seems that any criticism of the ruling party is anti-national, ”Beg said.

“Sinister censorship”

There are real-world consequences: member of right-wing Hindu group arrested for 2017 murder reporter Gauri Lankesh, while the WhatsApp group’s messages led to the lynching of mostly Muslim and Dalit men falsely accused of killing cows, kidnapping children or selling body parts.

WhatsApp introduced limits on message forwarding in 2018 to deter mass transfers in India.

For Hiral Rana, 37, these were not pressing concerns when she signed up to volunteer in cybercrime to fight disinformation after seeing a tweet about the government agenda.

About two to three times a day, she and other volunteers in West Gujarat state received information related to the coronavirus or government policy to post on their Twitter accounts and report any misinformation they spotted. to the police and the state. cybercrime group.

“It’s a good program, but too few of us were trying to spot the misleading tweets and report them,” she said, adding that although she was a BJP supporter, she was not told. asked to post political messages. She resigned after a few months.

When the Hindutva Watch account was suspended on Twitter, more than a dozen accounts – with names that declared their love for India or Modi – posted celebratory messages and warnings that they were leaving. were taking similar accounts.

The account remains suspended.

“The IT cell has evolved into a full-fledged spy and mass reporting machine. The Internet in India is now controlled by the government, which suspends or silences voices critical of the government, ”the spokesperson said.

“It’s a sinister form of censorship. “

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