India, a country of 1.4 billion people, has been hit by a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even if its health system gasps and its crematoria burns with thousands of pyres, its leaders strive to censor the internet.
Last week, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to block more than 50 tweets from being displayed 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 posts critical of the government. Over the past week, ordinary people who run WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have complained about threats demanding their closure, and police in Uttar Pradesh state filed a complaint against one One man who asked for medical help on Twitter for oxygen for his dying grandfather, claiming he had “spread misleading information”. On Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And while the company restored it, claiming the Government of India hadn’t asked for it to be censored, there were no details on why the hashtag was blocked.
These incidents, which occurred within days of criticism of the Indian government peaking, underscore the shrinking space for disagreement in the world’s largest democracy. As social unrest builds against an increasingly authoritarian government, it has hit social media hard, one of the last free spaces for citizens to express their opinions. New regulations have given the government extensive powers to restrict content, forcing US technology platforms, which consider India to be a key market, to strike a balance between growth and freedom of expression.
This is not the first time an Indian government has tried to censor the language online. In 2012, before Modi came to power, the Indian government ordered the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Internet service providers to suspend more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to the right wing.
In February, the Indian government ordered Twitter to remove more than 250 tweets criticizing how the government handled protests against new agricultural laws. Although Twitter blocked most accounts, the accounts of journalists, activists and politicians were unblocked in jail despite threats from the Indian government.
“India’s current Internet censorship is directly linked to the social criticism of government policy.”
“But now the frequency and level of censorship requested is increasing,” Apar Gupta, director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organization, told BuzzFeed News. “India’s current Internet censorship is directly linked to the social criticism of government policy.”
Over the weekend, India’s IT ministry attempted to explain its reasoning in an unsigned Word document it shared with the press and accessed on BuzzFeed News.
The “[g]Overnight stays welcome criticism, genuine requests for help and suggestions in the collective fight against COVID19, ”the message says. “But it is necessary to take action against those users who misuse social media for unethical reasons during this serious humanitarian crisis.”
The ministry cited a handful of the 53 tweets that were ordered to be blocked as examples of problematic content. There are four tweets calling the coronavirus pandemic a conspiracy theory and four more that include “ancient and unrelated images of patients and corpses.” At least two of these four cases are real examples of misinformation. Fact checkers from Indian outlets Alt News and Newschecker who examined the images, BuzzFeed News reported.
In an example of how thin the line can be between eliminating dangerous rumors and censoring political expression, the ministry did not offer explanations for any other downgraded content. An investigation by BuzzFeed News of the remaining restricted tweets found that at least some of them appeared to be legitimate criticisms of India’s prime minister. For example, one of the restricted tweets belongs to Moloy Ghatak, a minister from the state of West Bengal. He accuses Modi of mistreating 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 restricted tweets in India belonged to Pawan Khera, a national spokesman for the Indian National Congress, India’s largest opposition party. The tweet, posted on April 12, features images from Kumbh Mela, a Hindu religious gathering that happened earlier this month and saw millions of people bathing in a river despite the rapid rise in coronavirus cases. Both ordinary Indians and the global press have criticized the Indian government for allowing the gathering. In his tweet, Khera contrasted India’s lack of response to the Kumbh Mela with an incident last year when members of a Muslim gathering were accused of spreading the coronavirus when the country had fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases.
“Why was my tweet withheld?” Khera told BuzzFeed News. “That is the answer I need from the Indian government.”
“What laws am I breaking? What rumors am I spreading? Where did I cause panic? These are the questions I need to answer, ”said Khera, who posted a legal request to the IT department and Twitter this week.
“If I don’t hear from you, I’ll take you to court.”
“If I don’t hear from you, I’ll take you to court,” he said. “I need legal relief to protect my freedom of expression.”
Twitter did not respond to a request for a comment.
Experts said the ministry’s note did not provide sufficient justification for ordering social media platforms to censor posts. “Since when has the government been sending out misinformation notifications?” asked Pratik Sinha, editor of Alt News. “And why were these tweets quoted in particular? [out of 53]? “
Social media platforms weren’t the only places where crackdowns occurred. In the past few weeks, volunteer-run networks of WhatsApp and Telegram groups have sprung up across the country asking for help and giving people access to medical oxygen, life-saving drugs and hospital beds. But in the last few days some of them have disintegrated. According to a report on Indian news website Quint, volunteers who lead these groups received calls from people who claimed to be from the Delhi police and asked them to shut them down.
The Delhi police denied this, but by then people were scared. A network of WhatsApp groups run by more than 300 volunteers broke up days ago despite not receiving a call. “We decided not to take any chances,” the group’s founder, who chose to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News. “[I felt] Frustration and anger. “
Experts said one of the biggest problems in this situation was a lack of transparency – from both the government and the platforms. Last week, Twitter posted the details of the Department of IT’s order in Lumen, a Harvard University database that allows businesses to post communications from governments around the world. However, Facebook, Instagram and Google have not commented on alleged censorship in any of their largest markets, either to the public or to BuzzFeed News when asked to.
“They haven’t even made a public statement about it,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “The main duty of transparency rests with the government, but there was absolutely no platform transparency.”