Indian government asks Twitter to remove tweets critical of official response, as the country battle terrible Coronavirus outbreak
Twitter is under fire after it reportedly removed a number of tweets critical of the Indian government’s response to the Coronavirus disaster that is currently engulfing the country.
The platform received a legal request by the Indian government, a Twitter spokesperson told Reuters on Saturday, to remove dozens of critical tweets. These included tweets from opposition politicians, a minister in the state of West Bengal, and a film-maker.
The move comes as India battles a deadly second Coronavirus outbreak that is infecting at least 352,991 people a day, and killing at least 2,812 people on a daily basis (as of Monday 26 April). Those figures are thought to be very conservative, and the actual figures are likely to be much, much higher.
Deadly second wave
To make matters worse, health services in the country have been overwhelmed, with no beds available in many ICU departments, patients being treated on the streets, and hospitals running out oxygen.
There are also reports of morgues struggling to deal with all the dead bodies, with many resorting to burning bodies in outdoor crematoriums including car parks and in the streets.
This has prompted the United Kingdom (and other countries), at the weekend to begin donating much needed medical equipment to India, after a direct request by Modi to the UK.
The first UK shipment is expected to arrive in Delhi on Tuesday.
The UK has donated 495 oxygen concentrators – which can extract oxygen from the air when hospital oxygen systems have run out – as well as 120 non-invasive ventilators and 20 manual ventilators.
As the situation in India spirals out of control, with the peak of the current wave not expected for several weeks, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has come under sharp criticism by many Indians.
In a statement on Sunday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology was quoted by CNN as saying that it had asked Twitter, Facebook and other platforms to remove around 100 posts “in view of the misuse of social media platforms by certain users to spread fake or misleading information.”
It accused those users of creating ‘panic’ about the latest Covid-19 wave by “using unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals, communally sensitive posts and misinformation about Covid-19 protocols.”
The statement, which included screen grabs of blocked posts from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, said that some of these accounts were urging citizens not to wear a mask, or creating hatred “by inciting religious passions.”
In an emailed statement to CNN Business, Twitter reportedly said it has withheld some of the tweets following the request by the Indian government.
“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law,” the Twitter statement said. “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. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account,” the statement added.
Facebook declined to comment.
Freedom of speech?
But some have criticised Twitter’s compliance with the Indian government requests.
“Suppression of information and criticism of government is not only dangerous for India but it is putting people around the world at risk,” Mirza Saaib Beg, a lawyer whose tweets were among those withheld, was quoted as saying by the Guardian newspaper.
“Freedom of inquiry is an intrinsic part of freedom of speech and expression. These restrictions are further reflective of the weakening of all institutional spaces in India,” said Beg.
Some of the removed critical tweets include the following:
“India recording over 2 [hundred thousand] cases everyday, shortage of vaccines, shortage of medicines, increasing number of deaths … healthcare system is collapsing…!” said member of parliament Revanth Reddy in one of the removed tweets, along with the hashtag #ModiMadeDisaster.
In another withheld tweet, Moloy Ghatak, an opposition party leader in the state of West Bengal, wrote: “India will never forgive PM @narendramodi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement. At a time when India is going through a health crisis, PM chose to export millions of vaccine to other nations.” He used a hashtag in Hindi #ModiHataoDeshBachao, which means “Remove Modi, save the country.”
Twitter removed these tweets for India, but the tweets remain available for the rest of the world.
Tech giants Microsoft and Google have reportedly offered support to India, including funding for medical supplies such as oxygen concentration devices.