The Twitter takeover by Elon Musk has found a surprising welcome by Rahul Gandhi, now on a 2300-mile or 3750-kilometer march on foot as part of his “Unite India Journey” or “Bharat Jodo Yatra.”
Gandhi congratulated Musk and said, “I hope @Twitter will now act against hate speech, fact check more robustly, and will no longer stifle the opposition’s voice in India due to government pressure.”
This is a remarkable response considering that Musk will find it tough to take steps that may even the playing field for Gandhi and other opposition leaders because of an aggressively social media-focused Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Close to 24 million Indians use Twitter which is about 10 percent of the social media platform’s 238 million daily active users. In terms of sheer numbers, it is not particularly high but in terms of its political, social and cultural consequence it punches about its user-weight in India.
Gandhi has been known to complain that the Twitter leadership has been unknowingly complicit in suppressing dissent as well as limiting his and others’ ability to build up a following. In January this year, Gandhi had argued that the number of his followers had barely increased for many months after a temporary suspension of eight days of his account was ended. At that point the number was 19.5 million. Now he has 21.9 million followers.
In his letter to Twitter’s then CEO Parag Agrawal, Gandhi had said, “I want to bring your attention to what I believe is Twitter’s unwitting complicity in curbing free and fair speech in India.”
“I have been reliably, albeit discreetly, informed by people at Twitter India that they are under immense pressure by the government to silence my voice.”
Today, Gandhi also tweeted a graph to Musk which claimed that between August, 2021 and February, 2022, the number of his new followers was “suppressed” despite having made 20 complaints to the Twitter leadership. The social media platform had consistently denied it was suppressing Gandhi’s following.
Musk, who took over Twitter with characteristic goofiness on Thursday by bringing in a bathroom sink with a labored joke “Entering Twitter HQ–let that sink in”, has not responded to Gandhi’s tweet even though he did tweet that “the bird is freed.”
It is anybody’s guess whether Musk will do anything in particular to address Gandhi’s concerns, particularly when having spent $44 billion, close to $13 billion of which is bank loans, and taken the company private he has to get on quickly with the business of increasing its advertisement revenue. To that end, in his first official statement yesterday he said, “Fundamentally Twitter aspires to be the most respected advertising platforms that strengthens your brand and grows your enterprise.”
Musk yesterday fired Agrawal along with Chief financial officer Ned Segal, and the firm’s top legal and policy executive, Vijaya Gadde. Agrawal and Gadde were escorted out of the company’s building in a humiliating demonstration of a change of leadership. Interestingly though, as of writing this story Agrawal’s Twitter handle continued to describe him as CEO.
In India, Twitter remains a potent political tool. Prime Minister Modi’s personal handle @narendramodi and official handle @PMOIndia respectively have 83.8 million and 51.2 million followers. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) generally and Modi particularly have turned their Twitter handles into a powerful political, cultural and social tool.
With India’s next parliamentary elections expected in 2024 and Gandhi already having deployed the time-tested strategy of marching on foot as a potentially effective political move, any action in response to his appeal to Musk is expected to be followed up on a regular basis by his Congress Party.
Separately, in recent weeks Musk, who is the world’s richest man, has injected himself into some of the most debilitating global conflicts involving Russia, Ukraine, Iran and China. In particular, his unsolicited prescription that Beijing be handed over partial control of Taiwan to avoid any precipitate action by China is likely to have been viewed with somewhat worried curiosity by India. Anything involving China ends having either direct or indirect consequence for India.