With 53.3 million followers on Twitter, 35.2 million on Instagram, 4.51 million on YouTube and 44.73 million on Facebook, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the most popular world leaders on social media platforms, and has been a pioneer in using it for political communication.
But on Monday night, Modi kept everyone guessing when he put out a post: “This Sunday, thinking of giving up my social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & YouTube. Will keep you all posted.”
The first political reaction to the announcement came from Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. “Give up hatred, not social media accounts,” he tweeted.
This Sunday, thinking of giving up my social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & YouTube. Will keep you all posted.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) March 2, 2020
Modi’s announcement is startling given how he has gone the extra mile to engage with tech leaders. In 2014, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg came to India and discussed digital expansion in the country. In 2015, the PM went to Facebook headquarters for a town hall, where he teared up discussing his late father and elderly mother. “Social media changed my thought process and connected me to the rest of the world. And as I started connecting, the world started accepting me as I was. Nothing could be more satisfying,” he said there.
He also met Google CEO Sundar Pichai to inaugurate the project spreading WiFi hotspots to railway stations across the country. In 2016, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India banned Facebook’s Internet service called Free Basics. In 2018, the PM also met Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in Delhi.
He has been a pioneer in creating a parallel stream of new age workers on social media for his campaign ahead of elections and for governance post-2014 when he came to power with an impressive majority. The BJP, under Modi and Amit Shah was the first party to create IT cells from mandal to the national level to spread its message. Modi and Shah repeatedly met social media volunteers, encouraging them to propagate the party’s “messages”.
At his meetings with BJP parliamentarians and even Chief Ministers, Modi insisted they create Twitter and Facebook accounts to connect with people at the ground level and to improve efficiency in implementation of government schemes. In fact, one of the tasks of the Chief Ministers when they came for the BJP CMs’ meetings in the national capital was to give a detailed account of their activities on social media.
In the past, Modi has cautioned against efforts to “demonise” technology. At the launch of Bridgital India book, he said attempts were being made to create an atmosphere of fear.
Incidentally, Facebook also sent its vice president of global public policy, Joel Kaplan, to appear before the panel after Twitter vice-president Colin Crowell represented his company before the committee.
Give up hatred, not social media accounts. pic.twitter.com/HDymHw2VrB
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) March 2, 2020
Although the platforms have been harnessed by the PM and his base extensively, they have also had a rocky relationship with the companies. In the summer of 2018, a spate of lynchings linked to rumours spread on WhatsApp led to a series of meetings with company executives and the IT Ministry. The companies are on the edge, waiting for amendments to the IT Act to be notified, which could potentially put them under much more stringent rules to abide by government requests. The guidelines would be in addition to a pending Data Protection Act that would also put them under further regulatory control.
The BJP base has also complained about an anti-right wing bias. In February 2019, the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Information Technology summoned Twitter to “examine” the issue of citizens’ rights of “social or online news platforms” after a small group met with the committee’s then-chairman, Lok Sabha MP Anurag Thakur, to outline their accusations and protest in front of Twitter India’s office in New Delhi. The meeting led to further BJP backlash when Twitter failed to send their CEO Jack Dorsey, and the committee refused to see the India-based executives waiting outside their meeting room. The platform continued to reiterate that they don’t “take any action based upon political views”.
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