The leader of the Congress, the largest opposition party in India, is worried about losing his Twitter reach.
As of Jan. 28, Rahul Gandhi has 19.6 million followers, far behind prime minister’s Narendra Modi’s 75 million, but still a sizeable number. But growth has come to a near standstill. In a Dec. 27, 2021, letter to Twitter chief Parag Agrawal, Gandhi claimed he used to add hundreds of thousands of followers each month. In May 2021, he got 640,000 new followers. But since August 2021, his new follower count has fallen to “nearly zero” each month.
Wall Street Journal and two independent analytics firms confirmed that Gandhi gained an average of nearly 400,000 new users a month in the first seven months of 2021, but between September and December, he added fewer than 2,500 a month.
Gandhi has alleged that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a hand in stifling his social media reach. In his letter, he alludes to Twitter’s “unwitting complicity in curbing free and fair speech in India.” The microblogging platform is “under immense pressure by the government to silence my voice,” he claims, adding that the activity on his profile was restricted after he “raised the plight of a rape survivor’s family in Delhi, stood in solidarity with farmers, and fought the government on many other humans rights issues.”
This isn’t the first time Gandhi has accused Twitter of unfair treatment.
In August 2021, his account was blocked for sharing a photo with the Delhi rape victim’s family, after children’s rights activists claimed it violated the law. (The tweet is withheld in India but back for the rest of the world.) Several other Congress leaders were also locked out of the platform for sharing the same. All of them alleged Twitter was dancing to the tune of the BJP.
In his recent letter, Gandhi warned Twitter against “becoming a pawn in the destruction in the idea of India.” He asked Agrawal to ensure “Twitter does not actively help in the growth of authoritarianism in India.”
Twitter’s response to Rahul Gandhi
Twitter denies toying with anyone’s account, adding that its follower counts are “meaningful and accurate.” And when it comes to blocking accounts, it does so “judicially and impartially.”
There are valid reasons Gandhi could be seeing his follower count get stuck.
“We fight spam and malicious automation strategically and at scale with machine learning tools, and as part of those consistent and ongoing efforts to ensure a healthy service and credible accounts, follower counts can and do fluctuate,” a Twitter spokesperson told Asian News International.
“We remove millions of accounts each week for violating our policies on platform manipulation and spam. You can take a look at the latest Twitter Transparency Center update for more context. While some accounts notice a minor difference, in certain cases the numbers could be higher,” the spokesperson said.
Twitter is walking a fine line with the BJP
Aside from the Gandhi drama, Twitter’s tug-of-war with the BJP government has taken many twists and turns.
On one hand, the two have locked horns over Twitter’s social media intermediary rules, data and takedown requests, and sharing of “manipulated media” by government officials on the platform. For its defiance, the microblogging site has even faced visits from the police and threats to have employees jailed.
Yet, at other times, it has censored criticism of covid-19 mismanagement and farmer protests at the government’s behest.
“For the companies, it is a double bind,” Devdutta Mukhopadhyay, a lawyer who works on free speech issues in India, told the New York Times. “They want their services to be available in the country, but they also don’t want to be complicit in censorship that doesn’t adhere to international human rights standards by virtue of being arbitrary or disproportionate.”
Meanwhile, BJP’s social media experts keep finding ways to bypass the platform’s checks and balances to hijack Twitter trends and spread propaganda.