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Social media was a lifeline for Indians as COVID-19 overwhelmed hospitals. But the government wants to censor it.

India coronavirus
A relative of a COVID-19 patient breaks down at LNJP Hospital, on April 21, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

India's second coronavirus wave has overwhelmed hospitals.
But the government is focused on censoring discussion of its failures on social media.
A new law threatens social media employees with prison if firms don't comply with takedown orders.
See more stories on Insider's business page.

For countless Indians, Twitter has been a way to track down medical supplies for friends and family sick with COVID-19, as a second wave overwhelmed hospitals.

But when one man appealed for oxygen for his sick grandfather in April, he was arrested and charged with spreading misinformation. Authorities in Uttar Pradesh, where the man lived, claimed there was no shortage, dismissing "rumors and propaganda on social media."

One head of an NGO in New Delhi, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisal, told Insider he was called by police and told to shut down a Telegram channel he was running to procure medical supplies for those in need.

Authorities have been going after the platforms themselves too. Earlier this week, police went to Twitter's offices in Delhi after the company labelled tweets by ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party as "manipulated media."

Tweet manipulated media BJP member
BJP member of parliament Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe was among those whose tweets Twitter labelled "manipulated media." He shared a document claiming it was an opposition party plan to use the COVID situation to embarrass the Government. The opposition claimed it was fake.

They are also clamping down on more trivial matters. Last week, the government ordered Facebook and Twitter to remove references to the "Indian variant" of coronavirus – despite the fact the government itself was happy to call another variant "South African."

Indian authorities' attempts to censor criticism have become more pronounced in recent months.

A flashpoint came during anti-government farmers' protests in January, when Twitter refused a government request to permanently ban accounts on free speech grounds.

At that time, COVID-19 cases were low and ministers encouraged people to resume normal life. But a more severe second wave struck. Earlier in May, the country set a global record for cases recorded in one day – 414,188 – and its seven-day average of daily cases is still more than 200,000, more than double the peak of the first wave in September.

India COVID daily cases May 28
The seven-day average of India's daily COVID case rate shows the scale of the second wave.

Ministers have been condemned for not only failing to prepare for second wave, but allowing and even staging mass gatherings. In late April, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook were asked to censor dozens of tweets and posts that criticized such failures.

This week, the standoff is coming to a head. A new law came into force Wednesday that threatens tech companies and their employees with prosecution and potentially imprisonment if they don't comply with takedown orders within 36 hours.

Twitter issued a statement Thursday condemning "intimidation tactics" against their employees and the new rules' "potential threat to freedom of expression."

The statement vowed to continue a "constructive dialogue with the Indian Government" but added: "We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation."

Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have been refuges for dissent in India. A US State Department report noted in March that Indian government officials were "involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets" through physical attacks, pressuring owners, as well as targeting sponsors and "encouraging frivolous lawsuits."

Raman Jit Singh Chima, the Asia Policy Director at Access Now, a non-profit promoting digital civil rights, said the government's actions were creating a "chilling impact on free speech."

He added the repressive action tended to happen "when they think they are under pressure or come under more online criticism."

Pratik Sinha, who founded one of India's leading fact-checking platforms, AltNews, said the government had been content to leave social media alone before the farmers' protests, when it was enjoying praise and India appeared to have avoided a COVID-19 disaster.

Indian Farmers Protests
An elderly farmers shouts slogans as protesters block a major highway during a protest at the Delhi-Haryana state border in India on December 1, 2020.

But Sinha said: "As soon as the narrative changed, people started using the very medium that has benefitted the ruling party for such a long time to voice their discontent … they don't want these critical voices to come out."

"These are clearly diversion tactics that the government is adopting in the middle of a pandemic."

Samir Jain, policy director at digital rights think-tank the Center for Democracy and Technology, said threats of imprisonment were akin to "hostage provisions."

He added the new rules would "only empower the government to escalate its attempts to stifle legitimate speech and further imperil the future of online free expression in India."

Facebook and Google have both issued carefully-worded statements in response to the new rules, in contrast to Twitter's strongly-worded response.

Google said it would "ensure that we're combating illegal content in an effective and fair way, and in order to comply with local laws in the jurisdictions that we operate in."

A Facebook spokesperson told Insider that the company would "comply with the provisions of the IT rules and continue to discuss a few of the issues which need more engagement with the government."

WhatsApp, which belongs to Facebook, is suing the government, saying the rules would allow authorities to trace the source of messages, a violation of the app's end-to-end encryption.

Senior BJP member of parliament and former party vice-president Dr. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, whose tweet was among those labelled "manipulated media" by Twitter, told Insider in a statement: "The refusal and reluctance of social media platforms to abide by the rules and regulations made applicable by the government is inexplicable."

"Law of the land is supreme and nobody can disregard India's constitution," he added.

"Besides, the opaqueness of their algorithms and lack of transparency in their decision making makes their case of taking a unilateral decision of flagging some Tweets totally undemocratic.

"India is a robust and institutionalized democracy and the Government cannot allow any company to take us for granted."

AltNews's Sinha said the government could not continue to suppress its failures over the pandemic.

"People are grieving. There's anger," he added. "You can't just suppress anger, it's bound to come out."

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