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India police search Twitter offices after tweet row

Police in India searched the local office of social media company Twitter, after its moderators labelled a tweet by the national spokesperson of the governing party as potentially misleading.

Television images from the broadcaster ANI showed a team of Delhi anti-terrorism police carrying out the search on Tuesday after receiving a complaint about the tweet.

“Delhi Police is inquiring into a complaint in which a clarification is sought from Twitter,” said the police in a statement given to local broadcaster NDTV.

On May 18, Sambit Patra, national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata party, tweeted screenshots of a “toolkit”, or briefing notes, allegedly used by the Indian National Congress opposition party to discredit Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Congress party claimed the toolkit was fake and Twitter subsequently labelled the tweet as “manipulated media” on Thursday.

The government then asked Twitter to remove the tag. On Friday, the police invited Twitter’s India managing director, Manish Maheshwari, to present himself as part of a “preliminary inquiry pertaining to the toolkit” and to bring “all the relevant documents”.

The same day, India’s IT ministry issued an advisory directing social media companies to curb false news by removing “all the content that names, refers to, or implies ‘Indian variant’ of coronavirus from your platform immediately”. So far, Twitter does not appear to have removed such content.

A Twitter spokesperson in India declined to comment on the search.

The manipulated media tag investigation follows a flare-up between India’s government and Twitter earlier this year over controversial tweets about widespread farmers’ protests.

Twitter had refused to block accounts that criticised New Delhi’s agricultural reforms and which sparked massive protests across the country. In February, India announced sweeping new social media rules designed to give authorities greater power to take down posts it deems offensive.

Officials said the legislation was designed to make companies “more responsible, more accountable” to the law in India, but privacy experts warned that the government was working to give itself more power and crack down on dissent.

“For India to do this is a major escalation, it’s being done to put pressure on Twitter but also other tech companies and platforms,” said Raman Chima, Asia policy director of Access Now, a non-profit group defending digital rights.

“It is not normal in any way for the Delhi police special cell to be taking on tech-related issues,” said Chima. “There is no case to justify a police site visit at the India subsidiary of a global company.”


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