As Covid Outbreak Rages, India Orders Critical Social Media Posts to Be Taken Down


NEW DELHI — With a devastating second wave of Covid-19 sweeping across India and lifesaving supplemental oxygen in short supply, India’s government on Sunday said it ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down dozens of social media posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.

The order was aimed at roughly 100 posts that included critiques from opposition politicians and calls for Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to resign. The government said that the posts could incite panic, used images out of context, and could hinder its response to the pandemic.

The companies complied with the requests for now, in part by making the posts invisible to those using the sites inside India. In the past, the companies have reposted some content after determining that it didn’t break the law.

The takedown orders come as India’s public health crisis spirals into a political one, and set the stage for a widening struggle between American social media platforms and Mr. Modi’s government over who decides what can be said online.

In a radio address on Sunday, Mr. Modi sought to stem the fallout. He said that the “storm” of infections had left the country “shaken.”

“At this time, in order to win this battle, we have to give priority to experts and scientific advice,” he said.

One of the tweets removed from view was posted by Moloy Ghatak, a labor minister in the opposition-ruled West Bengal state, where Mr. Modi’s party hopes to make big gains in an ongoing election. Mr. Ghatak accused Mr. Modi of “mismanagement” and held him directly responsible for the deaths. His tweet included images of Mr. Modi and his election rallies beside those of the cremations and compared him to Nero, the Roman emperor, for choosing to hold political gatherings and exporting vaccines during a “health crisis.”

Another tweet from Revanth Reddy, a sitting member of the parliament, used a hashtag that blamed Mr. Modi for the “disaster.” “India recording over 2 lakh cases everyday,” it said, using an Indian numbering unit that means 200,000 cases. “Shortage of vaccines, shortage of medicines, increasing number of deaths.”

The new steps to muzzle online speech deepen a conflict between American social media platforms and Mr. Modi’s government. The two sides have tussled in recent months over a push by India’s government to more strictly police what is said online, a policy that critics say is being used to silence government detractors.

“This has been a trend, which is enforced with increasing frequency and severity for online media spaces,” said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group. He added that the orders were being used to “cause censorship” under the guise of making social media companies more “accountable.”



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