Social media has become a crucial lifeline for many in India.
In the absence of an effective government response, hundreds of thousands of Indians have turned to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to find hospital beds, oxygen, and COVID-19 drugs for their loved ones.
And then social media platforms started receiving takedown requests from the Indian government.
Twitter admits it complied with these requests.
However, some censored tweets relate to the shortage of medicine and beds in India and some censored tweets blame Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the COVID-19 healthcare crisis, calling for his resignation. Other censored tweets were by prominent Indians with a significant following.
The tech news site Medianama reported that Twitter blocked 52 tweets that criticised the government’s handling of the COVID-19 surge, upon government orders. Medianama cited public Twitter disclosures, tracked by the Lumen database, a transparency project run by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society.
A Twitter representative also reportedly told Indian news channel NDTV that “action has been taken in response to a legal request from the Government of India” and that they’re “battling COVID-19 misinformation.”
On April 25, the Indian government also confirmed that it ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to block close to 100 posts about COVID-19 calling them “misinformation”, “inflammatory” or aimed to “create panic.” It is unclear whether Facebook and Instagram complied.
India just recorded 352,991 new cases and 2,812 deaths—the fifth straight day of this country of 1.4 billion pushing record-breaking infection numbers for the world.
Among the posts that the government found “inflammatory” were visuals of cremations. A leading Indian journalist tweeted the need for reporting from crematoriums.
“Covid related posts that showed photos of cremations that were incendiary, inflammatory messages that could incite the public and lead to assaults on healthcare personnel are among those that have been blocked,” Indian publication Hindustan Times quoted an anonymous government official as saying.
Doctors and experts, on the other hand, have used social media to share crucial information about the new and more infectious COVID-19 strain, which government officials have been downplaying for months.
On April 23, Devlina Chakravarty, a doctor from Gurgaon, a city that shares borders with India’s capital, went on national television and spoke about her Twitter account being suspended after she tweeted about the need for oxygen. “I’m a doctor and we’re trying to save lives,” she said. “I created this Twitter account [on April 23 morning] because I was told that if I go on social media, I will be heard instantly. Within hours, my account got suspended.”
She added, “I’m a little sceptical about what needs to be said anymore, and whether tweeting out problems is politically correct or not. All I know is that saving lives is the right thing to do.”
Government officials also denied shortages of COVID-19 resources, when India’s social media timelines showed otherwise.
The digital crackdown outraged social media users.
German journalist Pieter Friedrich tweeted about the censorship he faced.
“A ‘notice of withholding’ from Twitter informing me that Indians can no longer view my Tweet because showing the truth apparently hurts Modi's sentiments,” tweeted Friedrich, who has 31,800 followers on Twitter. “Did you know Indian law allows the State to censor international Tweets it doesn't like?”
Another affected Twitter user, Pawan Khera, a politician from India’s opposition party Indian National Congress, tweeted that he will challenge the illegality of his tweet.
His now-blocked tweet, which was posted on April 12, criticised a well attended and controversial Hindu religious event in northern India and election rallies. It had 3,800 shares and over 11,000 likes.
“I am sending a legal notice to the Government of India over taking down my tweet,” he said to his 350,070 followers.
On April 22, a Twitter user called Jeenal Gala alleged that Twitter made her delete a video showing Hindu cremation of COVID-19 bodies. Gala shared screenshots of Twitter locking her account for posting media that allegedly depicted “gratuitous gore”.
“You may not share excessively graphic media (e.g., severe injuries, torture),” read Twitter’s rule violation note to her.
The Indian government’s ongoing emergency blocking orders are built upon Section 69(A) of India’s Information Technology Act, which allows the government to block public access to information available online.
The Indian government has used this law multiple times in the past to crack down on social media handles that criticise the government.
Recently, they used it to crack down on over 200 accounts that supported the farmers’ protest in New Delhi this year. Back then, Twitter refused to take down tweets, after which the Indian government threatened the organisation with jail time.
“Section 69A enables secret censorship by the government because it comes with a confidentiality requirement,” said Indian digital rights watchdog Internet Freedom Foundation, in an online statement.
“When Twitter, Instagram or Facebook are made to take down people’s posts, we cannot know the reasons for blocking and by whom it was directed. This creates a bizarre situation where citizens have the right to challenge takedowns, but are unable to do so because they don’t have access to legal orders.”
In response to the censorship reports, Twitter said in a statement, “When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.”
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