A day after microblogging site Twitter deleted 52 tweets that were flagged by the Centre for criticizing its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Sunday (April 25) asked several social media platforms to remove 100 more posts.
Sources in the Ministry confirmed that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been asked to remove content that was ‘critical’ of the Union government’s handling of the current medical crisis because ‘it was fake news and spreading lies.’
Twitter and other social media platforms duly complied and removed about 100 posts and URLs (uniform resource locators). Twitter said it has notified the impacted account holders of its action taken in response to a legal request from the Government of India. Facebook did not comment on the issue.
Meanwhile, sources confirmed that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, on the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, asked the social media companies to remove the posts and URLs to “prevent obstructions in the fight against the pandemic” and possible disruption of public order due to the said posts.
The ministry believes that the social media platforms are being misused by certain users to spread fake or misleading information and create panic about the pandemic in the society “by using unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals, communally sensitive posts and misinformation about COVID-19 protocols”.
However, social media handlers alleged that many of the removed tweets had content related to shortage of medicine, beds, mass cremations, and the gathering of crowds at Kumbh Mela amid the pandemic. While blocked for viewing in India, these tweets will continue to remain visible outside the country.
Delhi Police also reaching out to people
It has been alleged that the Delhi police department reached out to some independent volunteers and asked them to take down information from social media relating to availability of medicines, beds and oxygen cylinders.
The Delhi Police, however, denied any such action. The department issued a statement saying: “Vested groups spreading misinformation on social media alleging Delhi Police has prevented those engaged in amplifying resource information publicly. Delhi Police response is appended. It doesn’t prevent good Samaritan work while opposed to those benefiting at the cost of the public good.”
Some volunteers, however, confirmed such an action. “Not only did the Delhi Police reached out to us to take down the information, but our Twitter account too was restricted. There are people whose Telegram groups were also blocked,” said Akash Gooner, a volunteer.
Saket Gokhale, an RTI activist, said the government wants to put a curb on free speech. “The government doesn’t want the world to know their inability to handle COVID-19 in India. Doing all this is against the democratic values of the country.”
Twitter has removed or restricted access to more than 50 posts in the past month at the behest of the government, including tweets that criticised its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Other posts removed showed pictures and videos of a recent Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh.
Earlier this year, more than 500 accounts were suspended and access to hundreds of others in India were blocked after the government ordered the microblogging platform to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content related to farmers’ protests.
A Twitter spokesperson said when it receives “a valid legal request, it reviews it under both 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 access to the content in India only. The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the biannual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen,” the spokesperson said.