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Why did Facebook and Twitter remove posts critical of Indian government over Covid crisis?

Move comes in backdrop of growing conflict between social media platforms and Indian government

Vishwam Sankaran
Tuesday 27 April 2021 14:24 BST
Logo of the the American online social media and social networking service, Facebook and Twitter on a computer screen in Lille
Logo of the the American online social media and social networking service, Facebook and Twitter on a computer screen in Lille (AFP via Getty Images)

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other platforms have removed close to 100 posts after the Indian government asked them to remove content critical of their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – a move that comes amid a growing fear of censorship of social media users.

While Facebook, which is also Instagram’s parent company is yet to comment on the issue, Twitter said it has notified the users whose content it removed in response to the Indian government’s legal request.

The Indian technology policy website MediaNama, which was the first to report on Twitter taking down posts, quoted the microblogging site saying in a statement that if any content posted on its platform “is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of Twitter’s rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only,” adding that it would notify the account holder directly via email if any such violations are found.

In one of the now-removed tweets, Moloy Ghatak, a minister from the All India Trinamool Congress Party, accused Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “underplaying the corona situation” in the country, and “letting so many people die due to mismanagement.”

The tweet used images of Mr Modi adjacent to those of cremations amidst steeply rising Covid cases in India to compare the Indian Prime Minister to the Roman emperor Nero, critisising him for holding large political gatherings in the state of West Bengal during a “health crisis.”

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), said Sunday that it asked social media platforms Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to remove over 100 posts alleging these were “inflammatory”.

Details of these flagged posts and the account holders could not be determined immediately.

An official from the ministry reportedly said these posts constituted “social media misuse” and were removed to “prevent obstructions in fight against the pandemic and escalation of public order”.

According to MEITY, these posts showed images of cremations of dead bodies which had “inflammatory” messages with the potential to incite the public, Deccan Herald reported.

In the posts, MEITY added that images were being used to spread “fake or misleading information” and create panic about the pandemic in the society “by using unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals, communally sensitive posts and misinformation about COVID-19 protocols”.

Commenting on the removal of posts critical of the Indian government’s handling of the pandemic, Rasha Abdul Rahim, Director of Amnesty Tech – a global collective of advocates, hackers, researchers and technologists – said the language used by the ministry arguing that the blocked content is “fake news” and “spreading misinformation,” is “vague and ambiguous”.

“In reality it is trying to silence any criticism against it. It is a tactic that has been used time and time again by governments across the world during the pandemic to avoid scrutiny and accountability,” Mr Rahim said in a statement.

According to Mr Rahim, Twitter and Facebook’s decision “undermines Indian citizens’ freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information without interference,” which are particularly important during a public health crisis. 

This new move by the Indian IT ministry also comes in the backdrop of growing conflict between social media platforms and Mr Modi’s government.

Earlier this year, at the behest of the IT ministry, Twitter temporarily blocked over 250 accounts in India belonging to activists, political commentators and even a leading investigative journalism magazine – accounts which were critical of the government’s handling of protests by Indian farmers who were agitating against new agricultural laws.

Employees of the microblogging platform in India were even threatened by the government with jail time if the company failed to delete the reported tweets.

“The staff at the Caravan feels that Twitter’s decision to withhold our official account is the latest in a long list of targeted attacks that have been mounted on the publication for pursuing important stories fearlessly,” Vinod K. Jose, the executive editor of the investigative journalism platform, and one of the journalists who had sedition charges filed against him, told BuzzFeed News in February.

Twitter then restored the accounts of a number of journalists and politicians and declined to block them citing that the government’s orders were not consistent with Indian law.

However, while the company claims to notify users of the blocked accounts via their email, the activists and political commentators whose profiles were blocked, say they were not notified by the company before the action was taken.

“This has been a trend, which is enforced with increasing frequency and severity for online media spaces,” Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group, was quoted saying by The New York Times.

According to Gupta, these orders are being used to “cause censorship” under the guise of making the social media companies more “accountable.”

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