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Musk's vague ideas of free speech and Tesla's ambition could spell doom for India's minorities

OPINION: His position may allow a lethal flow of hate speech targeting minorities to flourish on Twitter, while Tesla could be given a special deal in return for a free pass to stifle Twitter-based criticism of the Modi government.
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Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributor on
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Image: Getty Images

When Elon Musk decided to buy Twitter, he caused both panic and euphoria in the US. These responses were catalyzed by talk of what he may or may not do around freedom of expression on Twitter.

What remains unclear is what exactly free speech in the US really is -- and what Musk thinks it is. Moreover, what implications could it have for India, a country arguably going through its most wrenching time since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947?

"By 'free speech,' I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people," he recently tweeted.

Sure. But what exactly is free speech? And what is the relationship of law to the life, liberty and happiness of all of its citizens?

If you look at the US historically, freedom and law have often not co-existed. Legal scholars point out the inherent structural racism in US laws that exist even today, while millions of Black Americans are often disenfranchised, incarcerated, harassed and killed while the law turns a blind eye to these crimes.

In reverse: Elon Musk plans to reverse Donald Trump's permanent ban on Twitter

The "freedom of speech" offered in the US Constitution -- an addition made when Black Americans could be enslaved -- was actually intended to protect against the government's potential to restrict an individual's expression.

This begs the multi-billion dollar question: What does the law say when a private corporation restricts speech? There is no fixed answer. Legal interpretations of the First Amendment have been see-sawing through history.

As the Atlantic points out, liberal justices on the US Supreme Court during FDR's New Deal, and then during Justice Thurgood Marshall's reign some 30 years later, battled hard to prevent private corporations from being allowed to ban free speech on their property.

The irony apparently got even thicker later when, under President Nixon, the Court justices deemed that a private corporation has no obligations to allow people it doesn't like on its platforms.

Another name for this is content moderation -- and Musk seems to disapprove of it.

See also: Musk's Twitter goal of authenticating all users is good for ending bots but bad for humans

What Musk will inherit in India

Whatever happens in the US with Musk's bespoke version of free speech, it will not compare to the chaos set to confront him in a country home to a seething, dangerous, and volatile reservoir of hate and human rights crimes -- namely India.

Technically speaking, free speech in India is governed by a multitude of laws spread over different penal codes that criminalizes those who promote "enmity between different groups on grounds of religion" as well as "deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs."

That's in theory. 

None of those laws have proven to be actionable under the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who sounds serious about constructing a Hindu nation purged of its minorities -- notably Muslims.

In India, politicians associated with Modi's party have consistently incited violence against Muslims, such as during the Delhi riots two years ago where two-thirds of the victims were Muslim.

In numerous instances, Muslims have also been lynched by Hindus for allegedly eating beef, or for allegedly illegally transporting cattle -- even when the victims have concrete proof of their innocence. The lynchings then gain tacit approval by the public following the incidents. 

Justice for the crimes has been elusive.

Right now, BJP central and state governments are in the midst of arresting and deporting millions of Indian Muslims, who settled in the country some 50 years ago, for not being able to provide official papers of citizenship.

At the same time, numerous Muslim men have been incarcerated in the BJP state of Uttar Pradesh on trumped up charges; couples are being attacked and sometimes killed due to inter-faith, Hindu-Muslim marriages -- that are now increasingly outlawed in many Indian states; Muslim homes are being bulldozed with no notice, while those of Hindu neighbors are being spared; Muslim girls wearing hijabs are being prevented from entering their colleges to write exams; Hindu festivals now play techno-hate songs in Muslim neighborhoods that call for violence against Muslims.

The police have even reportedly joined in on the violence.

To those who have not subscribed to this apocalyptic vision of India, it has been a sustained reign of terror that seems only to be gathering steam. 

The problem for Musk is that much of the ground work for these atrocities is taking place on social media -- of which Musk's Twitter is an important constituent.

Technology enables hate

The intersection of technology and hate, specifically hate-speech, has resulted in colossal human suffering ever since the spoken word was first transmitted in the form of propaganda via the invention of the printing press. But it is in the last several decades that technology has truly realized its horrifying promise.

Today, social media is harnessed to enact crimes against humanity. In Myanmar -- formerly Burma -- the military and allied civilians murdered over 7,000 Rohingya Muslims in 2017 and forced a million refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

There, the chief culprit was Meta's Facebook, indicted by whistleblowers like Francis Haugen and the United Nation's fact-finding mission into the Myanmar genocide as playing a "determining role" in the genocide.

In India, Facebook's inaction has been blamed for India's many communal clashes, including one in the nation's capital Delhi that killed 40 Muslims and 13 Hindus two years ago. This inaction continued to provide a comfortable home to a tsunami of hate speech, as the Wall Street Journal has chronicled.

The technique remains the same: Bombard people with the idea that your targets are inhuman -- India's Home Minister Amit Shah calls Bangladeshi Muslim refugees termites -- until it becomes an unassailable truth and an imperative.

See also: No, Elon, Twitter will never be a platform for 'Free Speech'

Hating away your minorities

It is now fashionable in India, bordering on banal, to spew online invectives against minorities.

Exhortations for the mass gang-rape of Muslim women on social media are almost everyday affairs. Many Muslim women woke up last year to find themselves on fly-by-night smartphone apps where their images and profiles were arranged as if in a bazaar "sale" and available for bidding.

In December 2021, one of the holiest congregation of Hindu priests publicly called for a genocide of Muslims, specifying which instruments to buy and use. Aspirational genocidaires are springing up all over India, screaming on social media postings for the spilling of Muslim blood in return for a political platform or salvation -- or both.

The Indian media, except for some independent new sites, are not just toothless; they have become the baying bloodhounds of the government, partly out of economic realities -- they get a good chunk of their funds from government or government-related ads -- and partly out of abject fear.

However, the real media maestros are the members of the BJP troll army -- a group of dedicated servants on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube whose primary job is to single-mindedly and relentlessly infiltrate forums and chat rooms to dehumanize Muslims.

They are all assisted, of course, by American social media companies that have provided the platform for this carnage, especially Facebook and its offspring messaging platform WhatsApp.

Tesla's Indian dreams

It's into this vortex of carnage and despair that Musk and his free speech agenda has parachuted.

But there is a further complication.

The other, parallel narrative unfurling beside Musk's Twitter purchase is his ambition in India for Tesla. Musk has been frustrated by a 100% import duty on Tesla's cars that are over $40,000, and 60% on those that are under that amount.

"We are hopeful that there will be at least a temporary tariff relief for electric vehicles," Musk tweeted while his lieutenants visited Modi to make a personal plea. "That would be much appreciated." 

The twist in this saga is that Twitter has been one of the few channels that was able to display posts containing accurate information about the massive farmer's protest against Modi's new, regressive laws.

It also was a site where Indians could share information and vent their fury at Modi for his ineptitude and callousness in handling the first waves of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet, these heroics were short-lived, as the Indian government was able to eventually strong arm Twitter into taking down as many as 500 posts that were critical of the Prime Minister and then raided its Indian offices.

On the other hand, Zuckerburg and Facebook are less concerned about hiding their agenda. Zuckerburg installed a devout Modi fan and former BJP election consultant as its policy chief, who for years, according to a Wall Street Journal expose, refused to take down incendiary speech against Muslims by BJP politicians.

It is hard to miss the metaphor in the myriad of photos available of Modi and Zuckerburg in fond embrace at a town hall meeting, which may look even more sinister when you consider that Modi's close friend and the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, has sold 9.9% of his telecom-internet company Jio to Zuckerburg's Meta and has a partnership with Meta's messenger WhatsApp. Google is another investor.

In Vietnam, Zuckerberg has shown to be a reliable ally of the country's authoritarian government, which he has happily shut down criticisms of -- ostensibly because of the $1 billion in revenue that hangs in the balance.

Will Musk go the Zuckerburg way in India? Will he tweak Twitter in such a way as to ingratiate himself with a government that has a messianic vision for its minorities?

What now for free speech?

It turns out that one of the people who appeared in Musk's crosshairs following his deal was Twitter's top policy executive, Vijaya Gadde, who is of Indian descent.

She has been chiefly responsible in the last few years for pushing back firmly against the furious efforts of the Modi government to take critical tweets of itself down.

As the deal was announced, Musk immediately targeted Gadde on Twitter for being the Twitter censor they didn't need -- instigated mainly by a Hunter Biden article that she suppressed at the time. She was promptly targeted by Musk's fans as well.

Whichever way Gadde's career goes, the fact remains that free speech appears to be a myth. Content has been always moderated based on a shifting idea of a society's mores.

A New York Times article talks about how a decade ago, Twitter's stewards in the early years had similar views to Musk's, trumpeting freedom of expression and the need to adhere to local laws.

The ensuing outpouring of dangerous and bullying posts was so rife that it quickly realized that content moderation was the only answer to a situation that was spinning alarmingly out of control.

Possibly the best way to understand what Musk's preferred style of engagement would be for his newly purchased company would be to look at his tweeting record. With 80 million followers on Twitter, a large number of which are bots, Musk can be witty and playful. But he can also be sexist, brittle, and vindictive.

He finds it funny to make public jokes about women's breasts; he's been accused of spreading misinformation about Covid-19 and climate change, which Bill Gates thinks could get worse with him buying Twtter.

Musk couldn't handle Bernie Sanders telling him that he should pay taxes and responded: "I keep forgetting that you're still alive." Hilarious as a joke over a pint at the pub, but scary if this is the man who is going to determine the code of conduct over one of our largest means of mass communication.

To someone like Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University professor who puts social media under her scanner and gives her students Musk's tweets to mull over, the message behind his Twitter takeover is very clear.

"It paints him as some sort of rebel leader who will take control of the public square to save it. That is a myth he has constructed," she says in the Washington Post.

"He's a very smart man, and when he replies to people that criticize him, he knows what he's doing," Grygiel adds. "To me that's not championing free speech, it's weaponizing free speech, and I think that's what he'll do owning this platform."

The only thing that could be worse than having the above reality translated to India is if Tesla is also given a big tax break to enter the country. 

It may prove to be a most fatal quid pro quo, where Twitter becomes both the mouthpiece as well as the censor of a ruthlessly efficient authoritarian state.

Related Coverage

  • Twitter accepts Elon Musk's $44 billion buyout
  • Elon Musk explains what he wants to change about Twitter
  • Why we need more than one Twitter
  • Forget the algorithm: Here's what really makes Twitter unique

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