Big Tech Blocked Criticism of Indian Prime Minister Amid Covid Surge

When India’s doctors and hospitals were scrambling to handle a devastating surge in COVID cases, the Modi government was quickly turning social media companies into their own P.R. triage centres, demanding the removal of any posts critical of the government’s pandemic response. As the country faced the prospect of lacking critical oxygen supplies, the sensible response of any Prime Minister is the cut the airways of those screaming for medical attention.

Last week, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to block more than 50 tweets from being seen in the country. It was then reported in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Times of India that notorious big tech institutions like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp followed through with requests to remove posts critical of the regime. It was then reported in BuzzFeed News that people seeking oxygen and hospital beds complained of threats being made against their online groups, even going as far as to have the police force in the state of Uttar Pradesh file a formal complaint against a man seeking oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter. According to the complaint, the man’s pleas were merely “spreading misleading information,” and social media turned its head.

By Wednesday, it was reported in The Verge that Indian social media was circulating with hashtags such as #ResignModi, #COVIDEmergency2021 and #CovidSOS, all of which mysteriously disappeared during the critical days of pandemic criticism. According to the report, #ResignModi was eventually restored on Facebook within a few hours, though social media companies have remained closed lips regarding their reasons for the removal. Twitter confirmed the government issued an “emergency order” to censor the tweets via the Lumen database, a Harvard University project. It cites the government’s formal legal request, dated April 23, which included 21 direct tweets mentioned in the document.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law,” the Twitter spokeswoman said in an emailed statement. “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,” she said. The document used India’s law, the Information Technology Act of 2000, as a justification for the removal. The request failed to explain how the tweets were in breach of the law, however, as the government has a track record of invoking orders blocking public access to information under the guise of “protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India,” according to an Al Jazeera report.

Nevertheless, a lack of rationale didn’t stop the government from furthering a lack of humanity, opting to silence any potential suppliers of oxygen and other medical items from the patients in need. “Not only there is a lack of oxygen supply for those who can’t get medical aid in a hospital, the hospitals too are scurrying for oxygen,” wrote journalist Abhishek Baxi. “Over the past several days, pleas for oxygen supplies on Twitter have increased because they’ve not had any response from the authorities. There are updates on news channels about X hospital left with only a few hours of oxygen or Y hospital optimizing supply to patients because they’ve got only 2 hours of oxygen supply left. These hospitals, their hands tied, have requested patients to go elsewhere — something not possible in a city where all hospitals are bursting at the seams.”

In such a media crisis, it’s difficult to blame the government for using the censorship tools at their disposal. It’s simply within their propagandistic nature. But these incidents, widespread across social media during the vital hours of the surge, give critics of big tech a devasting picture of their censorious powers. India, a country with 1.4 billion people, is just as susceptible to having their social unrest quashed by increasingly totalitarian suppression, abusing the tools before them as they see fit. And as new regulations give the Indian government increased restrictions powers against US tech platforms, American legislators are falling behind in their responsibility to uphold freedom of information.

As BuzzFeed reports, these measures aren’t the first in Indian’s history of censorship, and they are only bound to repeat themselves if left without intervention. The report cites a 2012 incident, back before Prime Minister Modi rose to power, where India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government ordered internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to people from the right-wing. “But now, there is 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. “India’s current internet censorship ties directly into social criticism of the government’s policies.”

Experts believe this track record only increases the lack of transparency between governments, platforms and their shared constituents. “They didn’t even put out a public statement about these removals,” said the Internet Freedom Foundation’s Gupta. “The primary duty of transparency lies with the government, but there has been absolutely no transparency by the platforms.” And as it stands, India’s approach is to simply attempt to operate in the shadows, all the while the country is reeling from the deadly second wave of COVID-19 cases with more than 349,691 new cases and 2767 new deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource centre.

Ignorance and suppression of their problems will simply not do for a country with only a 1.6 per cent full vaccination rate. “The Modi government has been accused of manipulating and misrepresenting gross domestic product numbers and hate-crime data and, most recently, grossly underreporting covid-19 deaths,” write Francesca Recchia and Suchitra Vijayan, journalists for The Washington Post. “In the absence of credible information, many organizations use social media to provide information to the public and demand transparency and accountability from authorities. These restrictions shed light on how digital authoritarianism works to surveil, repress and intimidate many of us working on documenting negligence and institutionalized human rights violations.”

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