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Nikki Haley remains in the Republican presidential race despite low odds of winning the nomination, befuddling many observers. The former South Carolina governor’s interview on Thursday on NPR may shed light on her aims.

In the interview, Haley tailored her message not to likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, but to NPR’s audience, 65 percent of which identifies as Democrat, independent, or unaffiliated. She positioned herself as a sane and sentient alternative to both Donald Trump and Joe Biden, whom she described as “too old.” Haley may be testing the waters on a “No Labels” presidential candidacy later this year.

But voters of all affiliations may want to take a closer look at Haley’s views on regulating social media. Haley’s opinions on the role of government in determining whether and how citizens can express their views on these platforms are disconcerting. They reflect a shaky commitment to free speech rights and a disposition to censorship, belying her supposedly moderate credentials.

Haley’s Dangerous Nanny State

This week, Haley said the United States “can’t be the last country to ban TikTok” — the Chinese-owned social media platform. In making her case, Haley cited the fact that India has already banned TikTok.

Now, there’s much to be concerned about TikTok, including the harm it poses to minors and its potential use as a surveillance tool by China.

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But the question of whether TikTok should be banned must be based exclusively on the public and national security interest and within the bounds of the constitution. The U.S. should not simply follow the lead of authoritarian or illiberal states like India.

Haley’s call for the U.S. to imitate India is dangerous. India’s Hindu nationalist government is among the world leaders in internet censorship. Just this week, X (formerly known as Twitter) revealed that it was forced to comply with Indian government orders to withhold certain accounts and posts in India. Bizarrely, X is also restricted from publishing the very executive orders it is forced to comply with.

For many years, India has compelled X and other social media platforms to suspend or withhold voices critical of the Indian government. More recent targets have been accounts supporting farmers who are peacefully protesting for guaranteed crop prices. Other tech companies, including Meta, have held back from deplatforming state-aligned individuals in India who call for the murder of Christians and Muslims.

In Uttar Pradesh and many other states, scores of individuals have been arrested for social media posts criticizing Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath.

One man simply posted that Adityanath — a militant Hindu priest who founded a vigilante group — has many criminal charges registered against him. The police then showed up at his door and imprisoned him for 40 days. He was beaten while in custody.

India extensively regulates human behavior. In 2023, India was only second to Iran in internet shutdowns. Many states ban the consumption of beef and require the government’s permission to convert to Christianity and other non-Hindu religions. In fact, recognition of Haley’s own conversion to Christianity would probably be denied by the Uttar Pradesh state government.

Haley Befriends the Indian Trump

Haley says the U.S.-India friendship is “personal” to her. She also continues to hail India as an “ally that shares our democratic values.” But India isn’t a U.S. ally. In fact, it doesn’t want to be one. And its democracy has deteriorated so rapidly under Prime Minister Narendra Modi that organizations like V-dem now categorize it as an “electoral autocracy.”

Nikki Haley meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 27, 2018. (Image Credit: Office of the Prime Minister of India)

The irony here is that while Haley has staked her political future on being the anti-Trump, she’s also embraced a foreign leader who is far more authoritarian and divisive than the Republican frontrunner.

Under Modi, India’s courts have been neutered. So too has its media. Today, there isn’t a single private news channel left in India that is critical of Modi. The last one standing was purchased by Gautam Adani — an oligarch whose net worth has surged under Modi’s rule. The Modi government also banned a BBC documentary implicating him in the massacres of religious minorities.

Free speech is a fundamental right here in the United States. In India, it increasingly is not. The distinction should be clear to Haley. But it clearly isn’t. And that’s reason to be concerned.

Haley Wants Your Name

Haley’s call for an India-like TikTok ban isn’t her only troubling opinion on social media regulation. In November, Haley told Fox News that names on all social media accounts should be verified. “Every person on social media should be verified by their name,” were Haley’s exact words.

The required use of real names could make for a better social media experience, depriving trolls — and, potentially, foreign state actors — of their anonymity. But that’s a choice for individual companies and their users to make, not the government.

There are obvious dangers in forced verification — chief among them, surveillance by corporations and government alike. It could also lead to self-censorship and greater reluctance to speak truth to power — like in China, where the ubiquitous WeChat app has become so intertwined with the state that some areas have tested its use as an alternative to government-issued ID cards.

Having served as the top U.S. diplomat at the United Nations, Nikki Haley should have a clear understanding of what distinguishes free societies from countries like China and India. But she does not. And that’s a problem.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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