India’s #FarmersProtests and Nigeria’s #EndSars show what happens when governments fear Twitter

A farmer holds a hand up during a demonstration against recent agricultural reforms at a highway in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi on Saturday. (Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg News)
A farmer holds a hand up during a demonstration against recent agricultural reforms at a highway in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi on Saturday. (Anindito Mukherjee/Bloomberg News)

Rihanna may not have released new music in years, but her recent tweet on the ongoing farmers protests in India was music to the ears of human rights supporters around the globe.

Last week, the pop star and beauty mogul tweeted a CNN article about the Indian government shutting down the Internet in protest sites near the capital. She asked, “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” and used the hashtag #FarmersProtest, which has been the rallying cry for what started as a protest by Indian farmers against agriculture reform bills and has become one of the largest protests for economic and human rights in the world. Instead of simply ignoring Rihanna’s tweet, the Indian government went into a meltdown.

There is much to be said for the fact that Rihanna, an unapologetically Black woman from Barbados, rattled the establishment of a country in which anti-Blackness, colorism and misogyny run rampant. The epic overreaction included India’s Ministry of External Affairs blasting “celebrities and others” for “neither accurate nor responsible” comments. Indian establishment figures claimed there was a propaganda campaign against India. Google queries for “Is Rihanna Muslim” and “Is Rihanna Pakistani” trended in India. Pro-government figures and Indian influencers called Rihanna a “porn star” and went so far as to praise Chris Brown, her ex-boyfriend who assaulted her in 2009.

The poignancy of Rihanna’s tweet was that it was a simple yet powerful question. The global community should absolutely be talking about what is at stake in India. At least part of the answer gets to the heart of India’s anti-democratic downward spiral under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government’s attempt to control India’s digital public sphere.

Rihanna’s tweet invigorated the global conversation about the #FarmersProtests. But support and resources should go to the brave activists, protesters and farmers who have been marching in freezing temperatures to demand economic dignity. They have been subjected to vitriol, violence, smears and the threat of arrest. Police have unleashed water cannons and tear gas against protesting farmers. There have been reports of the arrests of journalists who cover the protests. The culture of abuse against women has been in disgraceful display: 23-year old Dalit activist and protester Nodeep Kaur was arrested and allegedly sexually assaulted by police, according to her family. The government has even pressured Twitter to shut down accounts that were posting about the protest.

The #FarmersProtests movement in India have parallels to Nigeria’s massive #EndSars protests against police brutality, which Rihanna also posted support for on social media. Both countries saw the spillover of long-standing civil grievances into the streets. Last year, after a video emerged of police forces killing an unarmed citizen, Nigerians took to the streets to protest the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has long been accused of torture, extortion and sexual assault. After weeks of protests, government forces opened fire on a crowd in Lagos. In India, poverty, poor health and unbearable debt to private lenders led to scores of Indian farmers dying by suicide over the years.

Both India and Nigeria have engaged, politically active diasporas. The #EndSars and #FarmersProtests movements benefited from celebrities and cultural influencers of Indian and Nigerian descent putting a spotlight on the abuses back home and sending resources to organizers and activists on the ground.

And in both cases, Twitter is becoming both the battle arena and a potent weapon in struggles between governments and their people. Pro-government accounts in Nigeria spammed protest hashtags. A Nigerian politician even threatened to sue Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey for $1 billion in damages. Just last week, the Indian government reportedly threatened to jail Twitter employees for unblocking accounts critical of the government.

There is no doubt that Twitter has played a massive role in facilitating modern social justice movements. Just like it added an icon with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, Twitter stood in solidarity with #EndSars protesters, adding a green and white fist emoji to the hashtag to help amplify it. Dorsey, who visited Nigeria in 2019, even tweeted asking for bitcoin donations to help support activists protesting #EndSars. As I tweeted last week, now would be as good a time as ever for Twitter to create a symbol for the #FarmersProtest hashtag.

How Twitter will respond in the coming days and weeks to pressure from the Indian authorities will have serious implications for technology, social media and democracy. Will it cave to pressure to silence critical voices to satisfy the increasingly authoritarian Modi government? Or will it live up to its promise to support human rights and safe and open debate?

For now, India’s farmers should know that Rihanna isn’t the only one who has their back. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Not only is the world talking about India’s brave protesters, but we also are rooting for them to win the rights and dignity they have been fighting for.

Karen Attiah is The Washington Post's Global Opinions editor. She writes on international affairs and social issues. Previously, she reported from Curacao, Ghana and Nigeria.

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