Imagine if in 2016, when US President Barack Obama prepares to hand over the office of the presidency to his successor -- and all the digital assets of the office, including the 4.84 million follower strong @WhiteHouse Twitter account -- that he and his staff decide to sabotage the online efforts of the president elect.
That's precisely the showdown taking place in India Tuesday when the office of the Indian prime minister changed its official Twitter handle from @PMOIndia to @PMOIndiaArchive, taking its 1.24 million followers with it to the grave of outgoing PM Dr. Manmohan Singh's administration.
It raises an interesting question. When the division of a political office owns your Twitter account, who gets to decide what happens to it when a challenger beats the incumbent in an election?
The social network, founded in 2006,and now commands a user base of more than 255 million people. Long a forum for both culture and politics -- President Obama has the third most followed account at 43.1 million followers behind performers Katy Perry and Justin Bieber -- Twitter has become a tremendous utility for free speech in populous democratic countries like India and for direct communication between institutions and the people they govern.
The issue at hand with @PMOIndia is a sensitive matter. Because in changing the handle, the India PM's office unceremoniously decided that the next PM, Narendra Modi, will have to build his own following under a new @PMOIndia account, which currently has just over 9,000 followers after being created earlier today. Though Modi, who has a personal Twitter following of more than 4.2 million, is no stranger to audience building, it's not easy to transition all official messaging on a social platform to a new account with a minuscule audience.
The former @PMOIndia account is now reachable at @PMOIndiaArchive until May 20, 2014, whereupon it will be presumably archived and then deactivated. Modi's political faction, the Bharatiya Janata Party, took to Twitter to tell its robust audience of 525,000 followers that the @PMOIndia account is a "national digital asset" that is being handled illegally in the transition between administrations.
Continuity in governance and all government assets is the hallmark of Indian constitution. @PMOIndia is a National digital asset. 1/3
- BJP (@BJP4India) May 20, 2014
It is ungraceful, unethical and illegal in the way outgoing team in @PMOIndia has handled the transition of this National Digital asset. 2/3
- BJP (@BJP4India) May 20, 2014
We hope better sense prevails, tweets of outgoing @PMOIndia are archived according to legal procedures and clean transition takes place. 3/3
-- BJP (@BJP4India) May 20, 2014
There is precedent in political Twitter hand-offs since the social network's rise last decade. David Cameron assumed control of the official Twitter account for the office of the prime minister of the United Kingdom when he took office in 2010, whereupon he did the opposite of the situation here. Cameron changed the Twitter handle from @downingstreet to @number10gov to put it more in line with Cameron and his party's branding efforts.
Presumably, future UK PMs may do the same, but are expected to hand off the official Twitter and its followers to each newly elected official down the line. For Modi and India, it's not so clear cut as it doesn't appear to be a matter of preserving the tweets of former PM Singh. That could be done easily using Twitter's archive HTML export tool, allowing the tweets to be set up on a separate website for posterity while all tweets before a certain date on the official account page could then be deleted.
It's unclear whether or not Modi and Singh have hit an impasse here, or if Twitter has any policy rule on the books to keep these kinds of situations from arising. CNET has reached out to Twitter for comment and will update this story if we hear back.