New Delhi: Fast forward to April 2024 when the campaign for the 2024 general elections is at its peak and suddenly, without giving any warning, Twitter bans the accounts of prominent political leaders, parties, and influencers, including sitting ministers, accusing them of sharing “false news”.

By the time the affected individuals and organizations—who have millions of followers, including party workers and volunteers who are banking on their tweets to shape the campaign on the ground—are able to get back the control of their Twitter accounts, either through a court order or any other recourse, crucial time has passed, as their opponents have already rolled ahead as far as reaching out to voters through social media is concerned.

In effect, while banning the users from using its platform, Twitter has assumed or even suppressed the role of the Election Commission of India by impacting the campaigning of candidates and their supporters. It also has restricted the choice of the voters to decide their preferences, especially the urban voters who rely a lot  on the activity taking place on Twitter to keep themselves abreast of the developments taking place around them.

This is an imaginary scenario, but the possibility of this happening in India is real as Twitter, right now, is engaged in a case involving an electoral dispute in the United States for its alleged interference in the political campaigning of an individual who was running for the US Senate last year. A few days ago, Twitter virtually did the impossible by taking control of the account of Union Law and IT Minister Ravishankar Prasad.

Experts say that these developments are a warning sign that the government and the Election Commission of India should not ignore if they have to keep elections in India free of external interference.

India, as per official count, has 1.75 crore Twitter users, but the impact of these 1.75 crore users cannot be put into numbers as every tweet has the potential to generate thousands of “impressions” or views. Tweets are also developed into content for forwarding on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. This 1.75 crore users are likely to touch 4-5 crore users in the coming three years as 4G and 5G penetration increases and reaches semi-urban and rural India.

In February this year, the Twitter account of Shiva Ayyadurai, an Indian-American Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate from Massachusetts in 2020, was permanently suspended by Twitter for “violating Twitter Rules”. Who decided that Shiva Ayyadurai had violated Twitter rules? As per Twitter’s admission in front of a US court, it uses its own discretion and independence to label tweets.

Ayyadurai, who was born in India, holds four degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a PhD in biological engineering.

While his political rivals had accused him of sharing false news of local election officers destroying ballot images that are a part of EVMs that should have been protected, Shiva Ayyadurai has stated that as per US federal laws, ballot images that are generated in EVMs are to be kept secure for 22 months which the Massachusetts administration did not.

Shiva Ayyadurai, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian, said that his Twitter account was suspended within minutes of him sharing screenshots of public emails showing the conversation that he had with election officials in which he had questioned why the ballot images were not saved as required by the federal laws.

Shiva Ayyadurai has now approached the US Federal Court in the matter. On 13 May, Judge Mark Lawrence Wolf stated that the case raised substantial Constitutional questions and appointed an amicus curiae in the case.

And his case against government officials and Twitter has moved beyond “motion to dismiss” which was filed by Twitter and the government officials, but was declined by the judge of the court concerned in view of the arguments and evidence presented by Shiva Ayyadurai.

Now the case is at the “discovery” stage where Shiva Ayyadurai will be submitting more evidence in his support. During one such hearing, Ayyadurai submitted evidence that showed how Twitter had entered into a “back-door agreement” with the administration in power to “censor speech of individuals”.

According to Ayyadurai’s argument, which he has stated in front of the court and which has been seen by The Sunday Guardian, Twitter has developed a dedicated portal which is used by the government and organizations to register complaints against individuals.

This portal is known as the Twitter Partner Support Portal. Apart from that, Twitter has also developed what Shiva Ayyadurai has called “playbooks” which are the “operating manual of suppression of speech of American citizens”.

“I had 350,000 followers and for people like me Twitter’s a political instrument. I used to tweet and it would lead to 20,000 re-tweets. My audience was massively engaged and when my account was blocked, it affected my campaigning significantly. Big Tech like Twitter is an agent of the government and it is impossible to say where Twitter ends and government begins,” Shiva Ayyadurai said.

“In 2017, US officials and Twitter began formulating and designing the framework that were included in playbooks for silently violating the free speech rights of US persons by first characterizing users as ‘Influence Operators’ (IOs), thereby fabricating a sinister connotation where none exists, as the ideological framework to justify canceling users’ accounts who exercise their right to express their opinion. These playbooks talk about a four-stage process to counter Influence Operators that includes preparing the criteria that define Influence Operators, identifying them, dealing with them and then monitoring after the officials have acted, and continue this process indefinitely. The manual provides all the tools that a state official would need to silence a person identified as an ‘Influence Operator’ for opining that a state election official has violated Federal law. The manual urges officials to assess the Threat Level of the Influence Operator using a three-level score after answering the following questions: 1) Is the IO an established voice? 2) Is the IO a credible person—meaning, are voters likely to believe the information? How prominent is the person and how many engagements do his tweets receive, i.e. retweets, likes? and 3) Is the IO’s message gaining traction? Did the official receive lots of communications about the tweet? Once these questions are answered, the official may rate the IO Threat Level as High, Medium or Low Severity,” Shiva Ayyadurai stated.

As per Ayyadurai, after the IO has been scored, the government officials are required to approach Twitter directly against the Twitter user (IO) and amplify the voice against the IO by asking other users to approach Twitter with more voices against the IO.

The manual makes explicit that officials enrolled in the Twitter Partner Support Portal (PSP) must use a dedicated email address for reporting threats from IOs—PSPOnboarding@twitter.com

“You must note that even during their testimony, none of the parties revealed that they used this dedicated email reporting system and instead claimed they used the same complaint webpage available to ordinary civilians to block my account. The Twitter PSP serves to allow state officials to silence speech of IOs by outsourcing the actual silencing to Twitter. Twitter serves to provide state officials with plausible deniability, by design! As per the playbook, Twitter commits to immediately silence a High threat Individual—‘an Influence Operator’—on behalf of state actors under the convenient pretext of independent, methodical, private action by Twitter Review Teams implementing some internal policy,” Shiva Ayyadurai told The Sunday Guardian.

According to him, this system of Twitter can be used by anyone whom Twitter wants to favour. Stacia Cardille, Director and Associate General Counsel, Global Policy Legal at Twitter, in her statement in the case, in front of the court stated that labelling of tweets is based on Twitter’s discretion and judgment.

“Under the updated policy, Twitter may apply ‘labels’ to tweets that, in Twitter’s sole and independent judgment, make false or misleading claims about elections or other civic processes in violation of Twitter’s Civic Integrity Policy. Twitter also receives reports about tweets from a wide range of other sources, including journalists, companies, advertising partners, non-profit organizations, government officials, researchers, academics, and Twitter employees, among others. One such mechanism for receiving reports is the Partner Support Portal, through which select civic partners, nonprofit organizations, government officials, researchers, and other stakeholders can report issues with their account functionality or suspected violations by other account holders of Twitter’s rules or policies, including Twitter’s Civic Integrity Policy. In its discretion, Twitter has established internal mechanisms for reviewing on an expedited basis reports received through the Partner Support Portal. In addition, Twitter uses a variety of automated tools to proactively monitor Tweets on the platform for potential rule or policy violations.”

“When Twitter receives a report about a potential violation through the mechanisms described above, Twitter reviews the tweet to determine whether it does indeed violate any of Twitter’s rules. Regardless of the source of a report, Twitter makes its own independent judgment as to whether the tweet violates its platform rules, and what enforcement actions (if any) Twitter will take in response. Employees in the Trust & Safety and Twitter Service teams are responsible for monitoring policy violations and applying enforcement actions as necessary. On January 8, 2021, following the violent attack on the US Capitol, Twitter updated its Civic Integrity Policy to institute a five-strike enforcement protocol for tweets that Twitter deems violate that policy. Under this protocol, enforcement actions become more severe as an account holder continues to post tweets that violate Twitter’s Civic Integrity Policy. Specifically, the enforcement action associated with each successive strike is as follows: 1 strike: No account-level action; 2 strikes: 12-hour account lock; 3 strikes: 12-hour account lock; 4 strikes: 7-day account lock; and 5 or more strikes: Permanent suspension,” her testimony reads. As per Twitter’s admission in front of a US court, it uses its own discretion and independence to label tweets.