COVID-19 Is Devastating India. Its Government Is Trying To Censor Social Media.


India, a country with 1.4 billion people, has been gripped by a deadly second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. But even as its healthcare system gasps for breath and its crematoriums burn with thousands of funeral pyres, its leaders are scrambling to censor the internet.

Last week, India’s IT ministry ordered Twitter to block more than 50 tweets from being seen 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 taken down posts that were critical of the government. Over the last week, ordinary people running WhatsApp and Telegram groups to help people find medical oxygen and hospital beds have complained of threats demanding that they shut them down, and police in the state of Uttar Pradesh filed a complaint against a man who asked for medical oxygen for his dying grandfather on Twitter, claiming that he was “spreading misleading information.” On Wednesday, posts with the hashtag #ResignModi disappeared from Facebook for a few hours. And even though the company restored it and claimed that the Indian government didn’t ask for it to be censored, it didn’t provide details about why the hashtag had been blocked.

These incidents — which happened within days of each other as criticism of India’s government reached a fever pitch — highlight the shrinking space for dissent in the world’s largest democracy. As social unrest against an increasingly authoritarian government grows, it has cracked down on social media, one of the last free spaces remaining for citizens to express their opinions. New regulations have given the government broad powers to restrict content, forcing US tech platforms, which count India as a key market, to strike a balance between growth and free expression.

This isn’t the first time that an Indian government has attempted to censor speech online. In 2012, before Modi came to power, India’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government ordered internet service providers to block more than a dozen Twitter accounts, including those belonging to people from the right-wing.

“But now, there is an increase in the frequency and scale of the censorship that is being demanded,” Apar Gupta, director of digital rights organization Internet Freedom Foundation, told BuzzFeed News. “India’s current internet censorship ties directly into social criticism of the government’s policies.”

In February, India’s government ordered Twitter to take down more than 250 tweets that criticized how the government handled protests over new agricultural laws. Although Twitter blocked most of the accounts, it unblocked the ones belonging to journalists, activists, and politicians, despite jail threats from the Indian government.

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