NEW DELHI – With a devastating second wave of Covid-19 across India and lifesaving oxygen starvation, the Indian government on Sunday ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to remove dozens of social media posts critical of how the pandemic was dealt with are .
The order addressed itself in around 100 places that contained criticism from opposition politicians and called for the resignation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The government said the posts could cause panic, use images out of context and hinder their response to the pandemic.
For the time being, the companies have complied by making the posts invisible to those using the websites in India. In the past, companies have republished some content after determining that it wasn’t breaking the law.
The shutdown orders come as India’s public health crisis turns into a political spiral, setting the stage for an increasing battle between American social media platforms and Mr Modi’s government over who decides what can be said online.
On Sunday, the country reported more than 349,691 new infections and 2,767 deaths. This was the fourth day in a row that it set a world record in daily infection statistics, though experts warn that the real numbers are likely much higher. The country now accounts for almost half of all new cases worldwide. His health system seems to be fluctuating. Hospitals across the country have been working hard to get enough oxygen for patients.
In New Delhi, the capital, hospitals turned away patients this weekend after running out of oxygen and beds. Last week at least 22 patients were killed in a Nashik city hospital after a leak cut their oxygen supply.
Online photos of corpses on plywood hospital beds and the countless fires of overhauled crematoria have gone viral. Desperate patients and their families have sought help from the government online, appalling an international audience.
On Sunday evening, in one of many solicitations for help on social media, Ajay Koli took to Twitter to find an oxygen bottle for his mother in Delhi, who he said had tested positive 10 days ago. Mr Koli said he lost his father on Saturday. “I don’t want to lose my mother now.”
Mr Modi has been attacked for ignoring expert advice on the risks of easing restrictions after holding large political rallies without regard to social distancing. Some of the content now offline in India has highlighted this contradiction by using garish images to contrast Mr. Modi’s rallies with the flames of the pyre.
In a radio address on Sunday, Mr. Modi tried to contain the fallout. He said the “storm” of infections “rocked” the country.
April 25, 2021, 1:06 p.m. ET
“To win this fight, we must prioritize experts and scientific advice,” he said.
One of the out of view tweets was posted by Moloy Ghatak, a labor minister in the opposition-ruled state of West Bengal, where Mr Modi’s party hopes to make big wins in the current election. Mr. Ghatak accused Mr. Modi of “mismanagement” and held him directly responsible for the deaths. His tweet included pictures of Mr Modi and his election campaigns alongside those of the cremations and compared him to Nero, the Roman emperor for choosing to hold political meetings and export vaccines during a “health crisis”.
Another tweet from Revanth Reddy, a seated MP, used a hashtag blaming Mr. Modi for the “disaster”. “India records over 2 lakh cases daily,” it says using an Indian numbering unit which means 200,000 cases. “Shortages of vaccines, shortages of drugs, increasing numbers of deaths.”
The new steps towards the confluence of the online language deepen a conflict between American social media platforms and the government of Mr. Modi. The two sides have argued over the past few months over an urge by the Indian government to monitor what is being said online more closely. A policy that, according to critics, serves to silence critics of the government.
“This is a trend that is increasingly being enforced for online media rooms,” said Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group. He added that the orders were used to “cause censorship” under the guise of making social media companies “more accountable”.
The battle for control of the gruesome images and online anger over a raging public health disaster is only one front in a wider conflict that is unfolding around the world. Governments around the world have tried to contain the power of the biggest tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, whose policies far from their California headquarters have huge political implications. At best, it can be difficult to untangle government efforts to deter misinformation from other motivations, such as tilting the online debate in favor of a political party.
While corporations attempt to adhere to guidelines that they say are based on the principles of free speech, their responses to government power games have been inconsistent and have often been based on business pragmatism. In Myanmar, Facebook cut ties with military-linked accounts because of violence against demonstrators. In China, Facebook is doing brisk business with government-sponsored media groups that have been busy denying the widespread internment of ethnic minorities that the US has labeled genocide.
In India, businesses are faced with a tough choice: obey laws and risk repressing political debates, or ignore them and face harsh sentences, including jail sentences for local employees, in a potentially huge growth market.
Disputes over online language in India are becoming more common. The Indian government, controlled by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has become increasingly aggressive in suppressing dissent. She has arrested activists and journalists and pressured media organizations to stick to her line. It cut off mobile internet access in crisis areas. A number of apps from Chinese companies were blocked following a stalemate with China.
In February, Twitter relented to government threats to arrest its employees and suspended 500 accounts after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Mr. Modi. However, Twitter declined to remove a number of journalists ‘and politicians’ accounts, pointing out that the order to ban them appeared to be inconsistent with Indian law.
In a statement on Sunday, the Indian government said the posts it targeted were “spreading false or misleading information” and “panic over the Covid-19 situation in India through the use of unrelated, ancient and out of context images or images “. It pointed to photos in several posts that were alleged to be of bodies unrelated to the recent outbreak.
In a statement sent via email, Twitter said that if content is “found to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction but doesn’t violate Twitter’s rules, we may only deny access to the content in India,” adding that in this case users would be notified. Facebook did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
The moves did little to quell a wider chorus of online anger.
“If most citizens do everything they can to organize hospital beds, oxygen and logistics support for loved ones, what exactly is the Indian government doing?” wrote Mahua Moitra, a politician and MP from West Bengal.
Aftab Alam, professor at the University of Delhi, was more direct.
“Because you know it’s easier to remove tweets than to ensure oxygen supply,” he wrote on Twitter.