“Like the Stasi”: cyber volunteers in India silence critical voices

The group that managed the Hindutva Watch Twitter account – which reported cases of violence and fanaticism of an extreme form of Hindu nationalism – 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.

Also read: The battle for digital privacy is reshaping the internet

The suspension of this, and dozens of accounts deemed critical of the government, came shortly after the Home Office launched a Cybercrime Volunteer Program (MHA) to report the content illegal or illegal online.

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

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

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

“For that, we have been trolled, mistreated, threatened. The self-defense machinery online tracks down accounts that criticize the BJP or the RSS (Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), calls them anti-nationals and lobbies for have them suspended, “the spokesperson said.

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 by an even larger margin in 2019, its victories attributed in large part to its computer and social media prowess, fueled by the 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 of. 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 being subjected to more scrutiny themselves,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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

About 22 million use Twitter, according to Statista.

Read also: Data privacy: an emerging field for legal professionals

India, like other countries, recently introduced laws to limit so-called disinformation and to censor content deemed critical to 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 introduced new rules this year that activists say violate privacy rights by requiring social media companies to identify users to authorities, following government demands to remove messages criticizing his 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 doesn’t have to be. It’s just cyber vigilance, and it’s dangerous because it pits citizen against citizen with no way to make sure someone doesn’t just use it for his personal vendetta, ”Jain mentioned.

“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.

No passports

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

The proposal was challenged by an opposition party member 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 – who were protesting against the new farm laws earlier this year have had their Twitter and Instagram accounts blocked at the behest of the government, including the handle @ standup4farmers.

Dozens of activists and journalists in India have also been revealed to be the target of spyware Pegasus, 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 was no unauthorized surveillance.”

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

“The aim is to silence through intimidation, as well as create a false narrative of support for the government’s views,” said Mirza Saaib Bég, a 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, ”said Bég. .

“Sinister censorship”

There are real-world consequences: A member of a right-wing Hindu group was arrested for the 2017 murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh, while the WhatsApp group’s messages led to deadly lynchings – mostly Muslim men and Dalits 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 turned 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,” he said. declared the spokesperson.

“It’s a sinister form of censorship.”

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