Savitri was outraged. She felt that Hindus in the US were being singled out for political opinions. ‘Why is it a crime to support Hindu causes?’ she said. It was an ominous sign that ‘free spaces for Hindus are shrinking.’
When journalist Matt Taibbi released the 17th version of the Twitter Files, some 40,000 American Twitter users, including many US citizens, discovered a US government-funded group was tracking them for alleged “disinformation” and “online harassment.” One such Twitter user was Savitri (Twitter handle: @MumukshuSavitri).
Savitri is an entrepreneur and designer. She often curates Twitter threads on Hindu history, art, traditions, and cuisines of India. When she checked the list of handles released in Taibbi’s file, she was “shocked” to find herself on the list.
The file that contained Savitri’s Twitter handle was part of the dataset sent to Twitter’s Trust and Safety team for verification by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab). The DFRLab alleged, according to Taibbi, that those handles belonged to “Hindu nationalists” and “paid employees or possibly volunteers” of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Andy Carvin, an analyst of DFRLab, wrote an email to Twitter: “Hi guys. Attached you will find… around 40k twitter accounts that our researchers suspect are engaging in inauthentic behavior… and Hindu nationalism more broadly.”
The DFRLab, Taibbi contended, is “funded by the US Government, specifically the Global Engagement Center (GEC).” The GEC has a history of supporting the censorship of social media users whose views are not aligned with the United States government’s viewpoints. However, Graham Brookie, the director of the DFRLab, contested Taibbi’s claim that his group uses tax money to track Americans and that GEC grants have an “exclusively international focus.”
Censorship in the US has come in many flavours in the last few years—media censorship, academic censorship, extensive tech censorship, etc. Much of this censorship has come in the guise of combating the spread of “misinformation.”
Since his Twitter takeover, the business magnate and investor Elon Musk has allowed a series of ‘Twitter Files’ releases. They have shown well-orchestrated systemic collusion between the Biden administration, functionaries of the Democrat Party, Silicon Valley Big Tech companies, social media platforms, and corporate media outlets. For example, weeks before the 2020 US presidential election, the Hunter Biden laptop story was censored as “Russian misinformation.” Also, opinions that challenged the CDC-FDA Covid dogma were censored. Social media accounts, including those belonging to healthcare professionals and scientists, were suspended for questioning public health policies of the US government, some of them at the behest of the Biden White House. YouTube deleted the congressional testimony of Drs Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff.
Biden administration’s infamous Disinformation Governance Board, also known as the “Ministry of Truth” (George Orwell’s 1984), is an excellent example of a systematic attempt to curtail political opposition in the United States. Mr Biden’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, announced the formation of the Board in April 2022. However, the government terminated the program in August due to immense pressure and outrage from the opposition and various free speech groups.
Just a few weeks ago (9 February 2023), media outlet the Washington Examiner revealed that a British group called the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) “received $330,000 from two State Department-backed entities linked to the highest levels of government.” The GDI was allegedly feeding blacklists to ad companies “with the intent of defunding and shutting down websites peddling alleged ‘disinformation’.” The GDI, on its part, warned advertisers that sites such as the New York Post, Reason, Real Clear Politics, the Daily Wire, The Blaze, One America News Network, The Federalist, Newsmax, the American Spectator, and the American Conservative, etc., could damage their reputations and brands.
Mike Benz, the State Department’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Communications and Information Technology, told the Washington Examiner that “the implementation of ad revenue crushing sentinels like Newsguard, Global Disinformation Index, and the like have completely crippled the potential of alternative news sources to compete on an even economic playing field with approved media outlets like CNN and the New York Times.”
In a series of tweets on 7 March 2023, Benz also claimed, via Foundation of Freedom Online—a Free Speech Watchdog—that the DHS’ Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) “scrubbed its website last week to purge all references to domestic censorship work.”
Another aspect of Taibbi’s latest Twitter Files release was the involvement of an ultra-Left Indian news portal. Reacting to the Twitter Files revelations, the DFRLab released a statement that the dataset sent to Twitter’s Trust & Safety Team for verification was “part of an investigation into alleged coordinated disinformation and online harassment in India, conducted in parallel with the Indian outlet…” One of the reporters from the Indian news portal had collected the dataset and shared it with the DFRLab alleging those tweets were from the “Hindu nationalists” and BJP supporters.
Savitri was outraged. She felt that Hindus in the US were being singled out for political opinions. “Why is it a crime to support Hindu causes?” she said. It was an ominous sign that “free spaces for Hindus are shrinking.”
Biden administration’s use of third-party groups in censorship seems deliberate and strategic. It gives the administration some legal cover. The US government cannot censor or spy on US citizens by law. However, the incremental release of the Twitter Files has revealed that censorship via surrogates has become the government’s primary modus operandi.
While the Indian news portal approached DFRLab seeking help in punitive measures against “Hindu nationalists” and BJP supporters on Twitter in the US, it was also engaged in a bizarre dispute with Facebook’s parent company Meta. The dispute involved an “explosive” story the Indian news portal had published in October of 2022. The story claimed that Amit Malviya, a top BJP functionary in India, could effectively scrub Instagram posts unilaterally. The Indian news portal went to extreme lengths to prove its allegations. Meta claimed that the Indian outlet’s stories on this issue were based on fabricated documents. The outlet later pulled its stories off its website “pending the outcome of an internal review process on… Meta coverage.”
It was distressing for many Hindu American observers to note that a well-reputed and well-established think-tank like Atlantic Council (AC) did not do its due diligence in entertaining requests from the Indian news portal. The portal is known for its anti-BJP and anti-Hindu coverages. Even a minimum amount of vetting by Atlantic Council’s outstanding team of experts would have revealed the portal’s agenda. According to Washington, DC-based political analyst Anang Mittal, the latest version of the Twitter Files shows “that the people running organizations designed to combat ‘misinformation’ are singularly focused on the government of Narendra Modi as their only target.”
In Atlantic Council’s defence, a quick review of its “experts” list revealed that while it has a few “South Asia” experts, it has no experts from India. None seem to have expertise in Hinduism, Hindu texts, and traditions, nor have they developed a widely accepted framework for defining “Hindu nationalism.” Also noteworthy is that a former Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan occupies a prominent position on its International Advisory Board.
The DFRLab eventually “terminated” its collaboration with the Indian portal in October 2021. However, it never cared nor intended to reveal this collaboration until Taibbi’s Twitter Files release exposed it. It also took no accountability for falsely and condescendingly labeling 40,000 Twitter users as “Hindu nationalists” to censor them. Even Twitter executives did not buy these allegations. Yoel Roth, the head of Twitter’s Trust & Safety, wrote in his email to DFRLab: “I spot-checked a number of these accounts, and virtually all appear to be real people.”
This revelation comes on the heels of Teaneck (N.J.) Democrats’ resolution last year that erroneously categorized several Hindu organizations operating in the US as terrorist groups. The resolution also tried to intimidate and bully Hindus by calling on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other US investigative and law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute organizations such as the Hindu American Foundation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), Sewa International, Infinity Foundation, etc.
As with any intelligence operation, we do not know the full extent of the government’s knowledge and involvement in the latest blacklisting revealed by Taibbi’s Twitter Files. Outsourcing censorship efforts to third-party groups adds more complexity to the problem. However, the most disturbing aspect of the latest Twitter Files exposé is that many Hindu Americans were unaware of the collaborated efforts to silence them by infringing on their First Amendment rights, most outrageously at the behest of a foreign agent. Also disturbing has been the silence of the Indian/Hindu American political class, notably the recently enlarged and empowered Samosa Caucus.
Author is a recipient of the San Francisco Press Club’s Journalistic Excellence Award in 2021 and 2022.