Twitter flags misleading post from Indian government official

Twitter has flagged a post by a high-profile figure of India’s ruling party as misleading content as the social media platform expands its campaign against disinformation around the world.

It is the first time the company has targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party, potentially setting it on a collision course with New Delhi.

Twitter said the post made by Amit Malviya, BJP’s information and technology chief, was identified as “manipulated media” on Wednesday.

The post, intended to discredit a widely circulated photo in which a police officer hit an elderly farmer who was protesting against the government, includes a video appearing to show the officer’s baton missing the man.

The move marks a push by Twitter to take its campaign against misinformation to key markets around the world after going head-to-head with US president Donald Trump for tweeting false information during the presidential election.

India, with a population of 1.4bn people, is Twitter’s biggest market, according to App Annie. The company is also an investor in ShareChat, a popular video-sharing social app in India.

“This is quite significant, there has been a serious uptick in political parties spearheading misinformation campaigns,” said Maya Mirchandani, an assistant professor at Ashoka University, researching political hate speech.

“We’ll have to wait and see what Twitter does next,” she said, “I can guarantee you this is not going to go down well with the ruling party.”

Mr Malviya responded by tweeting that “the marketplace of ideas is a better engine for sorting truth from falsehood than self-declared gatekeepers . . . big tech companies would serve themselves better by not wading deeper into this political thicket.” He did not respond to a request for comment.

“The referenced tweet was labelled based on our synthetic and manipulated media policy,” said Twitter, referring to the company’s February 2020 policy that says it labels tweets that “mislead or deceive people”.

In the past year, Twitter has also deleted tweets by the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela over coronavirus claims. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro had praised the benefits of the drug hydroxychloroquine, while Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro promoted a “natural brew” to cure Covid-19.

Shivam Shankar Singh, a former data analyst with the BJP and author of How to Win an Indian Election, said that Twitter flagging Mr Malviya was akin to firing a warning shot at the ruling party.

“He is quite powerful and quite famous within the party,” said Mr Singh about Mr Malviya. “But it’s not like they [Twitter] have marked the prime minister.”

Mr Singh added it would be “tremendously important” if Twitter puts more scrutiny on tweets from politicians but cautioned that “if Twitter only does it once or twice then it’s not going to matter”.

Social media platforms Facebook, WhatsApp and, to a lesser degree, Twitter have been key to the rise of Mr Modi’s BJP, which built networks on the Silicon Valley platforms to disseminate information that has been criticised as fake news and divisive propaganda.

“The BJP has used social media as a way to dominate the conversation, there are so many accounts that troll you for anything you say against the ruling party,” said Mr Singh. “It’s an effective tool for keeping opposition in check.”

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