For Modi, a Twitter handle is worth fighting over

(@PMOOffice / Twitter)
(@PMOOffice / Twitter)

As Narendra Modi enters office as India's prime minister, an unexpected, quintessentially 2014 scandal suddenly emerged: Who, exactly, should control the Twitter account of the prime minister's office?

The problem stems from January 2012, when the account @PMOOffice was created for then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The account was the first Twitter account for an Indian prime minister, and it soon became popular, with more than a million followers of 4,000 or so tweets. On Tuesday, however, just as Modi was officially appointed to office, @PMOOffice was unexpectedly changed to @PMOOfficeArchive.

"Archival material under the RTI Act for @PMOIndia till 20/5/2014," the Twitter account's bio read. "@PMOIndia will be available shortly."

The response from Modi's party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been indignant. The party took to Twitter to air their grievances:

Modi and the BJP appear to be free to take over @PMOOffice, which right now is just a blank account presumably being used as a placeholder (it already has more than 10,000 followers). But that clearly isn't the issue: The new prime minister's staff had hoped to get access to the 1.24 million followers who now follow @PMOOfficeArchive. Those people are now following an account which claims it will act only as an "archive."

This is an unprecedented problem, and there appears to have been no pre-agreed protocol. Pankaj Pachauri, a former adviser to Singh, has offered something of an explanation, arguing that Singh's tweets were simply being archived as India's Right to Information Act says they should:

“Read the RTI Act – all communication should remain in public domain for perpetuity,” Pachauri told the Hindustan Times. “This gives the next administration the flexibility of choosing the same name or start with a new handle. We are being thoughtful."

Some experts disagreed. "Obviously the handle “PMOIndia” is a digital property that belongs to the Government of India," Indian online law expert Na.Vijayashankar wrote on his personal Web site. "Similarly all websites, Facebook Ids and email IDs in official names are properties of the Government of India and has to naturally pass onto the next Government." Writing at India Today, Pierre Fitter points out that @PMOIndia handle had now lost its verified status and argues that Singh's office could have just archived the former PM's tweets with Twitter's own archive service.

Internationally, the precedents aren't totally clear. Leo Mirani at Quartz notes that the U.K. and Russia have had leaders who inherited Twitter accounts (and their followers), but also points to the debate over what should happen to the @BarackObama Twitter account in 2016.

Modi, of course, doesn't really need more followers: His own personal account (@narendramodi) has more than 4.2 million, making it the most popular Indian account. But BJP went big on their social media campaign for 2014, with candidate selfies and the crude strategy of automatically tweeting at every single person who mentioned Modi. Given BJP's extraordinary electoral success, they seem to be well aware of how valuable social media can be.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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