2021-05-07 13:27:48 COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.

COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.

A deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has gripped India, a country of 1.4 billion people. Even as its healthcare system struggles to breathe and its crematoriums burn with thousands of funeral pyres, the country’s leaders are scrambling to censor the internet.

Last week, India’s IT ministry directed Twitter to block the viewing of more than 50 tweets in the country. Days later, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Times of India reported that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube had also removed anti-government posts. Over the last week, ordinary people who run WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have reported receiving threats demanding that they be shut down, and 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 that he was “spreading misleading information.” Posts with the hashtag #ResignModi vanished from Facebook for a few hours on Wednesday. Even though the company restored it and claimed that the Indian government had not requested that it be censored, it did not explain why the hashtag had been blocked.

These incidents, which occurred within days of each other as criticism of India’s government reached a fever pitch, highlight the world’s largest democracy’s shrinking space for dissent. As social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government grows, the government has cracked down on social media, one of the few remaining free spaces for citizens to express themselves. New regulations have given the government broad powers to restrict content, putting pressure on US tech platforms that see India as a key market to strike a balance between growth and free expression.

This is not the first time an Indian government has attempted to censor online speech. Before Modi took office, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government ordered internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those of right-wing activists.

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

In February, India’s government ordered Twitter to remove more than 250 tweets criticizing the government’s handling of protests over new agricultural laws. Despite jail threats from the Indian government, Twitter unblocked most of the accounts, including those of journalists, activists, and politicians.

“The current internet censorship in India is directly related to social criticism of the government’s policies.”

Over the weekend, India’s information technology ministry attempted to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document shared with the press and obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The note stated that the “[g]overnment welcomes criticisms, genuine requests for assistance, and suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19.” “However, it is necessary to take action against those users who are using social media for unethical purposes during this grave humanitarian crisis.”

As examples of problematic content, the ministry cited a few of the 53 tweets that it ordered to be blocked. Four tweets refer to the coronavirus pandemic as a conspiracy theory, and four more contain “old and unrelated visuals of patients and dead bodies.” According to fact-checkers from Indian news outlets Alt News and Newschecker who examined the images, at least two of these four instances are genuine examples of misinformation.

The ministry provided no explanations for any other content ordered down, demonstrating how thin the line between removing dangerous rumors and censoring political expression can be. An examination of the remaining restricted tweets by BuzzFeed News revealed that at least some of them appeared to make legitimate criticisms of India’s prime minister. One of the restricted tweets, for example, belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a West Bengal minister. He accuses Modi of mismanaging the pandemic and exporting vaccines at a time when there is a scarcity in India.

Ghatak and the IT ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the tweets blocked in India belonged to Pawan Khera, a national spokesperson for India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress. The tweet, which was sent on April 12, features images from the Kumbh Mela, a religious Hindu gathering held earlier this month during which millions of people bathed in a river despite the fact that coronavirus cases were on the rise. Ordinary Indians and the international press have both chastised India’s government for allowing the gathering to take place. In his tweet, Khera compares India’s response to the Kumbh Mela to an incident last year, when members of a Muslim gathering were accused of spreading the coronavirus despite the fact that the country had fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases.

“Why was my tweet suppressed?” Khera explained to BuzzFeed News. “That is the response I require from the Indian government.”

“Which laws am I breaking? What are the rumors I’m spreading? Where did I cause a flurry? These are the questions I need answered,” said Khera, who this week filed a legal request with the IT ministry and Twitter.

“I’ll take them to court if I don’t hear back from them.”

“If I don’t hear from them, I’ll take them to court,” he threatened. “I require legal assistance to protect my freedom of expression.”

Twitter did not respond to a comment request.

According to experts, the ministry’s note did not provide enough justification for ordering social media platforms to censor posts. “When did the government start sending takedown notices for misinformation?” Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News, wondered. “And why have only these tweets [out of 53] been cited?”

Social media platforms aren’t the only places where there has been a crackdown. Volunteer-run networks of WhatsApp and Telegram groups have sprung up across the country in recent weeks, amplifying pleas for help and getting people access to medical oxygen, lifesaving drugs, and hospital beds. However, some of them have disbanded in recent days. According to a report on the Indian news website the Quint, volunteers running these groups received calls from people claiming to be from the Delhi Police, requesting that they be closed down.

The Delhi Police denied this, but by then, the public was alarmed. Despite not receiving a call, a network of WhatsApp groups run by more than 300 volunteers disbanded a few days ago. “We decided not to take a chance,” the group’s founder, who requested anonymity, told BuzzFeed News. “I was frustrated and angry.”

One of the most serious issues in this situation, according to experts, is a lack of transparency from both the government and the platforms. Last week, Twitter disclosed the details of the IT ministry’s order on Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows businesses to disclose takedown notices from governments all over the world. However, when asked, Facebook, Instagram, and Google have not commented on alleged censorship in one of their largest markets, either to the general public or to BuzzFeed News.

“They didn’t even issue a public statement about it,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “The government bears the primary responsibility for transparency, but there has been no transparency from the platforms.”

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COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.