For anyone on Twitter in India over the last 48 hours, the absurdity is evident. Various global icons tweeted in support of ongoing farmers’ protests in India, and things pretty much spiralled out of control after that. The most notable tweets were from Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, star singer Rihanna, media personality Mia Khalifa, and Meena Harris, a lawyer and niece of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
They’re notable not just because they amplified the cause of millions of farmers who have been protesting since last year, but because they’re now being targeted by right-wing trolls and the Indian government. On the day Thunberg, Khalifa and Rihanna tweeted, India’s Ministry of External Affairs released a statement that called out the viral tweets as “sensationalist social media hashtags and comments” that are “neither accurate nor responsible”.
Many pro-government influencers, including Bollywood actors and cricketers, also chimed in, calling the farmer protests an “internal matter”.
On Feb. 4, Indians furious with the audacity of Thunberg, Khalifa and Rihanna burned their effigies. A Hindu right-wing fringe group called United Hindu Front gathered in New Delhi, saying they would “not tolerate interference in internal affairs”. Some of the protest signs urged activist Thunberg and celebrities to “come to their senses”.
The same day, the Delhi Police filed a criminal complaint against the creators of a “toolkit” that Thunberg had tweeted on Feb. 3. The toolkit contained instructions on how to mobilise and speak up for the farmers from across the world, both online and off. In a statement shared by the police with VICE World News, authorities have launched an investigation into the toolkit creators because it was allegedly designed to “encourage disaffection and ill-will” against the Indian government.
While the complaint did not name Thunberg, several baseless rumours are circulating in the national media that she is a part of a global conspiracy against India. The hashtags “ConspiracyAgainstIndia” and “GretaThunbergExposed” started trending as the backlash against the 18-year-old activist intensified. Various pro-government media outlets also promoted the conspiracy theory.
An hour after the police complaint became public, Thunberg tweeted that she was sticking to her position on the protests in India.
On Feb. 5, news outlets reported that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had “liked” a few tweets that were supportive of the demonstrations.
Several trolls and some pro-government news outlets accused various high-profile figures of being paid by the farmers to lend support, though there is no evidence to support their claims.
Rihanna’s tweet, in the meantime, met with violent comments, wherein trolls congratulated American songwriter Chris Brown for physically abusing her in 2009. Comments like “Respect Chris Brown”, “Missing Chris Brown” and “Chris Brown did nothing wrong” and “She deserved that” were found on Twitter.
Meena Harris, who was subjected to trolling too, responded to the vitriol in a series of tweets.
While the global community talked about the issue on Twitter, the Indian government, on Feb. 3, sent a legal notice to the microblogging site to reimpose a controversial blackout on accounts linked to the protests. The accounts belonged to about 250 Indians who tweeted in support of farmers, which were suspended early this week but were restored within 12 hours after online outrage. The Indian government warned of a possible penalty if the microblogging site did not bring back the ban.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.