India is currently amid a dangerous coronavirus wave with more than 300,000 cases registered every 24 hours for the past several days. Social media timelines are filled with requests for oxygen, hospital beds, and medicines.
In the national capital, New Delhi, hospitals have had to knock on the door of judicial courts to request government assistance in procuring supplies of oxygen. Adults over the age of 18 will be able to get their first shot of vaccine only starting next month.
While the world was watching all of this unfold, India ordered social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove more than 100 posts critical of the government’s handling.
Twitter deleted or restricted 52 posts — first reported by Medianama on Saturday — including some by Members of the Parliament, actors, and filmmakers. The company had a template response to this action citing valid legal requests by the government and its own policy:
When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. 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 accessto 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. We notify the user(s) by sending a message to the email address associated with the account(s), if available. Read more about our Legal request FAQs. The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the biannual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen.
The list on the Lumen database, a site that lists takedown orders, suggests that some restricted tweets contained pictures such as cremation grounds (even in the form of cartoons and illustrations), a seemingly doctored photo of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s billboard, and an elderly woman sitting with an oxygen cylinder.
However, some other tweets in the list didn’t have any of this. It’s hard to know the exact reason behind the government’s requests as these orders are protected by India’s laws.
So banned tweets include specific pictures: cremation grounds (even in a cartoon form), a seemingly doctored photo of a BJP hoarding, an elderly woman sitting with an oxygen cylinder. Some other tweets don't have any of that. pic.twitter.com/ATeqWBjkRs
— Ivan Mehta (@IndianIdle) April 25, 2021
Facebook and Instagram haven’t commented on the issue at this moment.
Twitter has had its tiffs with the Indian government over the years. In February, it restricted several critical tweets of the farmer’s protest (believed to be among the world’s largest demonstrations) from the well-known accounts including a prominent publication, a farmer’s organization, and a Bollywood actor.
But hours after the action, the social network restored some of these tweets citing reasons of newsworthiness and freedom of expression. A few days after the incident, the government threatened Twitter employees with jail time for not following orders.
India rolled out its new social media rules in February that requires platforms to tackle takedown requests within 36 hours if authorities provide them with a valid order. However, these orders are kept under wraps, so there is no way to know why some posts were removed. This incident of covid-critical tweet restrictions is just another stat in the chart.