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In India, Google and Facebook help a vicious government campaign against environmental activists

Naomi Klein: how big tech helps India target climate activists, Guardian, by Naomi Klein 5 Mar 21, Companies such as Google and Facebook appear to be aiding and abetting a vicious government campaign against Indian environmental campaigners

The bank of cameras camped outside Delhi’s sprawling Tihar jail was the sort of media frenzy you would expect to await a prime minister caught in an embezzlement scandal, or a Bollywood star caught in the wrong bed. Instead, the cameras were waiting for Disha Ravi, a nature-loving 22-year-old vegan climate activist who against all odds has found herself ensnared in an Orwellian legal saga that includes accusations of sedition, incitement and involvement in an international conspiracy whose elements include (but are not limited to): Indian farmers in revolt, the global pop star Rihanna, supposed plots against yoga and chai, Sikh separatism and Greta Thunberg.

If you think that sounds far-fetched, well, so did the judge who released Ravi after nine days in jail under police interrogation. Judge Dharmender Rana was supposed to rule on whether Ravi, one of the founders of the Indian chapter of Fridays for Future, the youth climate group started by Thunberg, should continue to be denied bail. He ruled that there was no reason for bail to be denied, which cleared the way for Ravi’s return to her home in Bengaluru that night.

But the judge also felt the need to go much further, to issue a scathing 18-page ruling on the underlying case that has gripped Indian media for weeks, issuing his own personal verdict on the various explanations provided by the Delhi police for why Ravi had been apprehended in the first place. The police’s evidence against the young climate activist is, he wrote, “scanty and sketchy”, and there is not “even an iota” of proof to support the claims of sedition, incitement or conspiracy that have been levelled against her and at least two other young activists.

Though the international conspiracy case appears to be falling apart, Ravi’s arrest has spotlighted a different kind of collusion, this one between the increasingly oppressive and anti-democratic Hindu nationalist government of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the Silicon Valley companies whose tools and platforms have become the primary means for government forces to incite hatred against vulnerable minorities and critics – and for police to ensnare peaceful activists like Ravi in a hi-tech digital web.

The case against Ravi and her “co-conspirators” hinges entirely on routine uses of well-known digital tools: WhatsApp groups, a collectively edited Google Doc, a private Zoom meeting and several high-profile tweets, all of which have been weaponised into key pieces of alleged evidence in a state-sponsored and media-amplified activist hunt. At the same time, these very tools have been used in a coordinated pro-government messaging campaign to turn public sentiment against the young activists and the movement of farmers they came together to support, often in clear violation of the guardrails social media companies claim to have erected to prevent violent incitement on their platforms.

In a country where online hatred has tipped with chilling frequency into real-world pogroms targeting women and minorities, human rights advocates are warning that India is on the knife-edge of terrible violence, perhaps even the kind of genocidal bloodshed that social media aided and abetted against the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Through it all, the giants of Silicon Valley have stayed conspicuously silent. Their famed devotion to free expression, as well as their newfound commitment to battling hate speech and conspiracy theories, is, in India, nowhere to be found. In its place is a growing and chilling complicity with Modi’s information war, a collaboration that is poised to be locked in under a draconian new digital media law that will make it illegal for tech companies to refuse to cooperate with government requests to take down offending material or to breach the privacy of tech users. Complicity in human rights abuses, it seems, is the price of retaining access to the largest market of digital media users outside China.

After some early resistance from the company, Twitter accounts critical of the Modi government have disappeared in the hundreds without explanation; government officials engaging in bald incitement and overt hate speech on Twitter and Facebook have been permitted to continue in clear violation of the companies’ policies; and Delhi police boast that they are getting plenty of helpful cooperation from Google as they dig through the private communications of peaceful climate activists like Ravi.

The silence of these companies speaks volumes,” a digital rights activist told me, requesting anonymity out of fear of retribution. “They have to take a stand, and they have to do it now.”

…………………. It is this quest for a political diversion, in other words, that helps explain how a simple solidarity campaign has been recast as a secret plot to break India apart and incite violence from abroad. The Modi government is attempting to drag the public debate away from terrain where it is glaringly weak – meeting people’s basic needs during an economic crisis and pandemic – and move it to the ground on which every ethnonationalist project thrives: us versus them, insiders versus outsiders, patriots versus seditious traitors.

In this familiar manoeuvre, Ravi and the broader youth climate movement were simply collateral damage. Yet the damage done is considerable, and not only because the interrogations are ongoing and Ravi’s return to jail remains distinctly possible. As the joint letter from Indian environmental advocates states, her arrest and imprisonment have already served a purpose: “The Government’s heavy handedness are clearly focused on terrorising and traumatising these brave young people for speaking truth to power, and amounts to teaching them a lesson.”

The still wider damage is in the chill the entire toolkit controversy has placed over political dissent in India – with the silent complicity of the tech companies that once touted their powers to open up closed societies and spread democracy around the world. As one headline put it, “Disha Ravi arrest puts privacy of all Google India users in doubt”.


Indeed, public debate has been so deeply compromised that many activists in India are going underground, deleting their own social media accounts to protect themselves. Even digital rights advocates are wary of being quoted on the record. Asking not to be named, a legal researcher described a dangerous convergence between a government adept at information war and social media companies built on maximising engagement to mine their users’ data: “All of this stems from a stronger weaponisation of social media platforms by the status quo, something that was not present earlier. This is further aggravated by the tendency of these companies to prioritise more viral, extremist content, which allows them to monetise user attention, ultimately benefiting their profit motives.”…………..

The new code is being introduced in the name of protecting India’s diverse society and blocking vulgar content. “A publisher shall take into consideration India’s multi-racial and multi-religious context and exercise due caution and discretion when featuring the activities, beliefs, practices, or views of any racial or religious group,” the draft rules state.

In practice, however, the BJP has one of the most sophisticated troll armies on the planet, and its own politicians have been the most vociferous and aggressive promotors of hate speech directed at vulnerable minorities and critics of all kinds. To cite just one example of many, several BJP politicians actively participated in a misinformation campaign claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading Covid-19 as part of a “Corona Jihad”.

What a code like this would do is enshrine in law the double digital vulnerability experienced by Ravi and other activists: they would be unprotected from online mobs revved up by a Hindu nationalist state, and they would be unprotected from that same state when it sought to invade their digital privacy for any reason it chose……….

The new code, which will impact all digital media, including streaming and news sites, is set to take effect within the next three months. A few digital media producers in India are pushing back. Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of the Wire, tweeted last Thursday that the “lethal” new code is “aimed at killing the independence of India’s digital news media. This attempt to arm bureaucrats with the power to tell the media what can and can’t be published has no basis in law.” ………….

Do not expect portraits of courage from Silicon Valley, however. Many US tech executives regret early decisions, made under public and worker pressure, to refuse to cooperate with China’s apparatus of mass surveillance and censorship – an ethical choice, but one that cost companies like Google access to a staggeringly large, lucrative market. These companies appear unwilling to make the same kind of choice again. As the Wall Street Journal reported last August, “India has more Facebook and WhatsApp users than any other country, and Facebook has chosen it as the market in which to introduce payments, encryption and initiatives to tie its products together in new ways that [CEO Mark] Zuckerberg has said will occupy Facebook for the next decade.”

For tech companies like Facebook, Google, Twitter and Zoom, India under Modi has heralded a harsh moment of truth. In North America and Europe, these companies are going to great lengths to show that they can be trusted to regulate hate speech and harmful conspiracies on their platforms while protecting the freedom to speak, debate, and disagree that is integral to any healthy society. But in India, where helping governments hunt and imprison peaceful activists and amplify hate appears to be the price of access to a huge and growing market, “all of those arguments have gone out the window,” one activist told me. And for a simple reason: “They are profiting from this harm.” https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/mar/04/how-big-tech-helps-india-target-climate-activists-naomi-klein


 

March 6, 2021 - Posted by | environment, India, media, politics

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