Twitter Files IX and the pandemic content: Decoding free speech in the US versus India

The world often lectures India on curbing free speech but the Twitter Files drop on Christmas Eve reveals a cosy relationship between the social media platform and the US government that the latter exploited to expunge bad press during Covid-19.

Updated Jan 5, 2023 | 11:32 AM IST

The fact that Twitter suspended accounts based on ‘intel’ and ‘requests’ provided by the United States government in Excel spread sheets is a clear violation of the US citizens’ right to free speech i.e. the First Amendment.

Photo : AP
By Priyam Gandhi Mody
In the Twitter Files drop released on Christmas Eve, it became clear that both governments of the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic- that of President Trump and subsequently of President Joe Biden interfered with the functioning of the social media company. This meant that their governments pressurised Twitter and other popular social media agents to cancel, block and take-down accounts and posts of people including healthcare professionals and public health experts. While the Trump administration seemed to have requested Twitter to suspend accounts and posts which created panic during the initial days of the pandemic, the Biden government went several steps further and asked these companies to ban accounts which put out contrary views on COVID-19 management than that of the government’s.
This is problematic on many fronts. First, Twitter, like any other social media company, is a private organisation. Who it wants to retain on its platform is totally its own discretion – hence, technically it has every right to suspend, ban and deactivate accounts of choice. However, the problem here is the fact that Twitter seemed to be banning and suspending content on the request of various agencies of the United States government. Now, it is this extremely cosy relationship between the government and Twitter that becomes a matter of concern. The fact that Twitter suspended accounts based on ‘intel’ and ‘requests’ provided by the United States government in Excel spread sheets is a clear violation of the US citizens’ right to free speech i.e. the First Amendment .
It has further come to light in these Twitter Files that accounts of health professionals including doctors, researchers and public health professionals who held contrary views to that of the government’s handling of the pandemic were suspended. On further scrutiny, it becomes apparent that folks asking for accountability on the unchecked use of the Pfizer, Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and proving efficacy of treatments such as Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), Ivermectin and such were quick to be axed and de-platformed. Some of the studies which have recently released in various parts of the world now prove that several opinions communicated by these now ‘banned’ folks were scientifically accurate. Several scientific groups have now begun to raise questions on the fatal side-effects of the mRNA vaccines such as clotting, sudden death among youth and the unchecked approval from the US government to not only mandate them but also keep allowing jab-after-jab without thorough safety data. Policies such as mandating vaccines for kids and teenagers also come under great scrutiny with new, emerging safety data of the vaccines which the United States uses.
The case with HCQ was similar – while several scientific groups believed in the merit of using HCQ in controlled quantities for certain patient groups, the effectiveness of the drug was quickly dismissed after a couple of small studies with appeared in some popular scientific literature. At one point, almost all major countries had placed orders for HCQ from the Indian government. President Trump even forced his hand on India to prioritize the United States for immediate doses. India ramped up its production exponentially within a couple of weeks to meet the world’s requirement and send out the drug as soon as possible. We are, after all, the pharmacy of the world. Not only did we not hoard this potentially life-saving drug, but we encouraged our private sector, providing them with every resource they needed to scale-up production as soon as possible. In fact, the then President Bolsonaro of Brazil even tweeted a picture of Lord Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevi mountain as he took it to Lord Ram to search for the plants and herbs (Sanjeevani) which grew on it to save his brother Laxman’s life. This is significant because most world leaders then truly believed that HCQ was the Sanjeevani that would save lives of their citizens from COVID-19.
However, very soon, within a matter of weeks, HCQ was dismissed, suddenly disappearing from public discourse and narrative. At that point in time, it was believed that this happened due to the handful of research pieces which came out. In the light of the new Twitter Files revelations, it can now be concluded that this discourse was ‘forced out’ by the United States government and Twitter together. The question which arises is why? Who was this benefitting? The big-pharma lobby is so intricately woven into the US government system that it becomes impossible to cherry pick government entities and law-makers who silently work in their favour.
India on the other hand, had its fair share of opponents and policy critics. In fact, political opposition tried their very best to discredit the Indian vaccines which are now proving to be perhaps the most effective in the world. During the traumatic second wave driven by the Delta variant, several journalists created panic by posting misleading pictures of ever-burning crematoriums and bodies buried on the banks of the Ganga. However, we didn’t see the Indian government impede on these individuals’ right to free speech and their own opinions, regardless of how damaging it was. Twitter or any other social media company didn’t take a stance to block or suspend accounts which were constantly putting out false narratives either. The world often lectures India on curbing and influencing free speech, but with the Twitter Files revelations of this tight relationship between the US government and Twitter, any American entity should first look inward before calling us out – for India allowed opinions to prevail while the US government clearly tampered with narratives.
(Priyam Gandhi Mody is an author of three books. A Nation to Protect: Leading India through the COVID Crisis is her latest one)
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