COVID-19 is devastating India. The Modi government is trying to censor social media.


Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency through Getty Images

A worker fixes a funeral pyre of those who died of COVID-19 during a mass cremation at a crematorium in New Delhi on April 29, 2021.

India, a country with 1.4 billion people, has been captured by a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even as their health care system blows up and their crematoria burn with thousands of funeral pyres, their leaders struggle to censor the Internet.

Last week, the IT ministry of India ordered Twitter to prevent more than 50 tweets from being seen in the country. Days later, the New York News, el Wall Street Journal, and the India time reported that Facebook, Instagram and YouTube had also removed posts criticizing the government. Over the past week, normal people running WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and in hospital beds complained of the threats demanding that they be closed and of the police in the state of Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming he was “spreading misleading information.” Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And, although the company restored it and claimed the Indian government did not call for censorship, it did not provide details on why the label had been blocked.

These incidents, which took place a few days after criticism of India’s government reached fever, highlight the narrow space for dissent of the world’s largest democracy. How social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government is growing, it has repressed social media, one of the last free spaces where citizens can express their opinions. New regulations they have given the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing U.S. technology platforms, which see India as a key market, to find a balance between growth and free expression.

It is not the first time an Indian government has tried to censor online speech. In 2012, before Modi came to power, the government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) of India ordered Internet service providers will block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to people on the right wing.

In February, the government of India ordered Twitter withdrew more than 250 tweets criticizing how the government handled protests over new agricultural laws. While Twitter blocked most accounts, it unblocked those belonging to journalists, activists and politicians, despite threats to the Indian government prison.

“India’s current Internet censorship is directly linked to social criticism of government policies.”

“But now, there is an increase in the frequency and scale of censorship that is being demanded,” Apar Gupta, director of the digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “India’s current Internet censorship is directly linked to social criticism of government policies.”

Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry tried to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document it shared with the press and which BuzzFeed News agreed to.

The “[g]overnment welcomes criticism, genuine requests for help, as well as suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19, “the note said.” But action must be taken against those users who misuse social media during this serious humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes “.

The ministry cited a handful of the 53 tweets it ordered blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets that call the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory, and four more that contain “old, unrelated images of patients and dead bodies.” At least two of these four cases are real examples of misinformation, proving the facts of the Indian stores Alt News and Newschecker, which examined the images on BuzzFeed News.

In an example of how fine the line can be between eliminating dangerous rumors and censoring political expression, the ministry offered no explanations for any other ordered content. A review of BuzzFeed News on the rest of the restricted tweets showed that they appeared to be making legitimate criticisms of the Prime Minister of India. One of the restricted tweets, for example, belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a minister of the state of West Bengal. He accuses Modi of mismanaging the pandemic and exporting vaccines when there is a shortage in India.

Neither Ghatak nor the IT ministry responded to requests for comment

One of the tweets restricted to India belonged to Pawan Khera, national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party. The tweet, posted on April 12, shows images of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious gathering held earlier this month during which millions of people bathed in a river, even as coronavirus cases rose rapidly. . Both the common Indians and the world press have criticized the government of India for allowing the meeting to take place. In his tweet, Khera contrasts India’s lack of reaction to the Kumbh Mela with an incident last year, when members of a Muslim rally were accused of spreading the coronavirus when the country had less than 1,000 confirmed cases.

“Why was my tweet withheld?” Khera told BuzzFeed News. “This is the response I need from the government of India.”

“What laws do I break? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I panic? These are the questions I need to answer, ”said Khera, who sent one legal application this week at the IT ministry and on Twitter.

“If I don’t hear from them, I’ll take them to court.”

“If I don’t hear from them, I’ll take them to court,” he said. “I need legal relief to protect my freedom of speech.”

Twitter did not respond to any requests for comment.

Experts said the ministry’s note did not provide sufficient justification for ordering social media platforms to censor posts. “Since when did the government start sending withdrawal notices for misinformation?” asked Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News. “And why have only these tweets been cited? [out of 53]? ”

Social media platforms have not been the only places that have seen a crackdown. In recent weeks, networks of volunteer groups from WhatsApp and Telegram groups have emerged that amplify requests for help and get people access to medical oxygen, life-saving drugs and hospital beds. across the country. But over the last few days, some of them have dissolved. According to one report on the Indian news website Quint, volunteers leading these groups received calls from people claiming to be from Delhi police to ask them to close them.

Delhi police denied that, but by then, people were scared. A few days ago a network of WhatsApp groups led by more than 300 volunteers was disbanded, although they did not receive any calls. “We decided not to take any chances,” the group’s founder, who wanted to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] frustration and anger “.

Experts said one of the most important problems in this situation is the lack of transparency, both of the government and of the platforms. Last week, Twitter revealed details of the IT ministry order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows companies to disclose withdrawal notices from governments around the world. But Facebook, Instagram and Google have made no comment on the alleged censorship in one of its largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked.

“They didn’t even make a public statement about it,” Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation said. “The main duty of transparency is of the government, but the platforms have had absolutely no transparency.”

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