India using cyber-volunteers to silence critical voices: Report

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Government invites citizen volunteers to flag ‘illegal’, ‘anti-national’ content as activists fear the creation of a surveillance state.

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The group running the Hindutva Watch handle on Twitter – which flagged instances of violence and bigotry from Hindu nationalist groups – had long been accustomed to being abused and trolled for content critical of the Indian government.

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But they were also stunned when in April this year the account with nearly 26,000 followers was suddenly shut down without giving any reason.

The suspension of that, and dozens of accounts considered critical to the government, came soon after India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) launched a cybercrime volunteer program to report illegal or illegal online content, Reuters news agency reported on Monday. informed to ,

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Citizen volunteers, or “Good Samaritans”, are required to maintain “strict confidentiality”, and report child sexual abuse material, as well as online material “disturbing public order” or against religious harmony, and the integrity of India. are required, the MHA said, the report.

For activists, journalists and others critical of the government, it has become difficult to differentiate between trolls, the information technology cell of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and cyber-volunteers – whose numbers are estimated in the hundreds.

“For us, Twitter was important to expose communalism, hate speech, fake news and pseudoscience spread by right-wing forces,” said a spokesperson for Hindutva Watch, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

“For this, we were trolled, abused, threatened. The online monitoring mechanism pursues accounts that criticize the BJP or RSS, label them as anti-nationals, and lobby for their suspension,” the spokesperson said.

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

A Twitter spokesperson said complaints about the post are evaluated under Twitter’s Terms of Service and the Twitter Rules, and that “any content that is determined to be in violation will be processed to the extent of our enforcement options.” Is”.

MHA did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

digital warrior

The BJP came to power in India in 2014 and won by an even bigger margin in 2019, thanks largely to its knowledgeable IT cell and social media prowess, which thousands of supporters have called a digital “warrior” or warrior. .

Modi, 71, is tech-savvy, has 73 million followers on his personal Twitter account, and follows many people who are known to harass those who criticize his government, and who often say this in their profiles. that they are “proud of it.” Be behind Modi”

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

“But it’s actually a very smart move, because they themselves can stir up disagreements online without coming under more scrutiny,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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

According to Statista, around 22 million Indians use Twitter.

India, like other countries, recently introduced laws to limit so-called misinformation and censor content that is seen as critical to the government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.

China this year launched a hotline for citizens to report comments online that defame the governing Communist Party, while Vietnam encouraged people to post positive content about the country and “in the interests of the state”. Introduced guidelines to ban posts that affect

India introduced new rules this year that activists say violate privacy rights by requiring social media firms to identify users for authorities, demanding the removal of posts critical of the government’s handling of COVID-19 after.

WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the rules.

But the government’s cyber-volunteer program may be the most insidious of the measures so far, and risks turning the country into a surveillance state, said Anushka Jain, an associate lawyer at the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group.

“We already have a cybercrime law – so there’s no need for it. It’s just cyber-vigilance, and it’s dangerous because it’s pitting citizens against citizens, no way to be sure That no one is using it for their personal vendetta,” Jain said.

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

‘Surveillance State’

Three years ago, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said it planned to set up a social media communication hub that would monitor online platforms and analyze all communications in real time.

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

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

India topped the list of information requests on Twitter by governments in the second half of 2020, overtaking the United States for the first time. These requests may include seeking the identity of people tweeting under pseudonyms.

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

Earlier this year, several farmers and their supporters who opposed the new agricultural laws blocked their Twitter and Instagram accounts, including the handle @standup4farmers, at the request of the government.

Dozens of activists and journalists in India were also targeted by Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli tech firm NSO, which turns a mobile phone into a surveillance tool.

Officials declined to say whether the government had purchased the technology, saying only that “unauthorized surveillance does not occur”.

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

“The aim is to intimidate as well as create a false narrative of support for the government’s views,” said Mirza Saeb Baig, a lawyer from Indian-administered Kashmir. Trolled and harassed for criticizing the government.

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

‘Horrible 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 WhatsApp group messages mostly led to the killing of Muslim and Dalit men, killing of cows, kidnapping or kidnapping of children. On false charges of kidnapping. Sale of body parts.

WhatsApp introduced a limit on forwarding messages in 2018 to prevent mass forwards in India.

For 37-year-old Hiral Rana, these were not a concern when she signed up to become a cybercrime volunteer to combat misinformation after seeing a tweet on a government program.

About two to three times a day, she and other volunteers in western Gujarat state were sent a piece of information related to the coronavirus or government policy to post on their Twitter accounts, and flagged any misinformation that was He gave it to the police and the state. cyber crime group

“It is a good programme, but there are very few of us who are trying to identify and report misleading tweets,” she said, adding that when she was a BJP supporter, she was asked to post any political message. Wasn’t asked to. He left the post after a few months.

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

The account remains suspended.

“The IT cell has turned into a complete espionage and reporting machinery at large. Internet in India is now controlled by the government, which suspends or silences voices criticizing the government,” the spokesperson said.

“It’s a horrific form of censorship.”

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