The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid ‘heartbreaking’ coronavirus surge in India, government orders Twitter to remove posts critical of response

Funeral pyres for coronavirus victims are pictured at a mass cremation site in Delhi, India. (AP)
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As hospitals in India run out of oxygen and the country continues to set alarming records for confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, world leaders are pledging to send aid and the government is waging a social media crackdown.

At least 52 tweets from prominent figures — including opposition politicians, journalists and filmmakers — have been censored, according to the Lumen Database, a Harvard University initiative that tracks takedown requests. Although some of the posts in question contain potentially misleading information, others simply document the scale of India’s disastrous outbreak or express frustration with the country’s leaders.

One of the blocked posts, by an opposition party leader, said that people in India would “never forgive” Prime Minister Narenda Modi “for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement.” Another, from a Reuters photographer, contained images of grieving mourners, packed hospitals and a busy cremation site. Additional censored posts decried shortages of coronavirus tests, showed patients being treated in makeshift tents or called for Modi’s resignation.

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Twitter says that the posts, which remain visible in the United States and other parts of the world, are being blocked in India in accordance with local regulations.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law,” a Twitter spokesperson told The Washington Post. “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.”

India cited its Information Technology Act of 2000 to request that the tweets be removed, according to the Lumen Database’s records. Although it’s not clear what section of the law was cited, Reuters notes that New Delhi typically points to a clause that allows censorship in the naming of protecting public order and the “sovereignty and integrity of India.”

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India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told CNN that it had asked social media platforms to remove posts that were creating “panic” by “using unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals.”

India reported more than 350,000 new coronavirus cases and 2,800 deaths on Monday, breaking world records for infections for the fifth day in a row. Experts have warned that those numbers are almost certainly undercounts.

India’s coronavirus test positivity rate has risen from roughly 6 percent on April 1 to roughly 20 percent by April 25. Typically, a high positivity rate is considered an indication that not enough people are being tested, and cases are being undercounted.

On Sunday, the Biden administration pledged to donate vaccine-making supplies and medical equipment to India, a move that followed mounting anger about the disparities between the United States’ abundance of vaccines and shortages in the developing world. Australia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and Pakistan have also pledged aid.

“The situation in India is beyond heartbreaking,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said Monday at a briefing. The WHO is “doing everything we can,” he said, including deploying 2,600 staff members, thousands of oxygen concentrators and prefabricated mobile field hospitals to India.

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The United States continues to face pressure to do more to address the worsening outbreak in India, such as releasing millions of doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine that have not been approved for emergency use in the United States and are sitting at manufacturing facilities. “This is no time for symbolism, half-measures, or lip service — we must act now,” Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in a statement Sunday.

White House officials were expected to announce a plan to share up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries on Monday, but it wasn’t immediately clear when that would happen or how many doses would go to India. The doses must be cleared by federal regulations in the United States before being shipped overseas, which could lead to delays.

India on Monday ordered its armed forces to assist at overburdened hospitals and freed up oxygen supplies held in reserve at military facilities, Reuters reported. “Air, Rail, Road & Sea; Heaven & earth are being moved to overcome challenges thrown up by this wave of #COVID19,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan wrote on Twitter.

Modi said Monday that he had a “fruitful” phone conversation with President Biden to thank him for the support, and also “underscored the importance of smooth and efficient supply chains of vaccine raw materials and medicines.”

The Indian government’s decision to remove critical social media posts, which was first reported by Indian outlet Medianama, has inspired a new wave of criticism and will probably raise questions about when American social media platforms should comply with takedown requests from foreign governments. Many in India have been turning to social media to beg for emergency assistance for sick relatives, hold officials accountable or attempt to raise global awareness about the devastating scale of the outbreak, as the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation noted.

The Indian American Muslim Council, a D.C.-based group whose tweet linking to a Vice News article about a Hindu religious ceremony that turned into a superspreader event was removed, said in a statement that the government’s decision to crack down on criticism on social media “shows the administration’s moral compass continues to point in a direction that is shamelessly self-serving.”

In February, when Modi’s administration faced massive protests from Indian farmers, the government demanded a crackdown on social media and threatened to imprison Twitter employees who are based in India. Twitter suspended more than 500 accounts that it said were “were engaging in clear examples of platform manipulation and spam,” but said that it would not take action against “accounts that consist of news media entities, journalists, activists, and politicians.”

Claire Parker contributed to this report.

This report has been updated.