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Facebook, Twitter: A lifeline for Indians in the Covid crisis and a threat to Narendra Modi

He is not the only one who organizes emergency efforts on social media.

Over the last few weeks, as India’s Covid-19 crisis has been elaborated, American giants on social media have become platforms of hope for millions of people. The world’s second most populous country has registered over 18 million cases since the pandemic started – and its healthcare infrastructure has crumbled under pressure as hospitals run out of oxygen and medicine.
Family members of Covid-1[ads1]9 patients waiting to refill empty oxygen cylinders in Manesar, India.
With authorities struggling to provide adequate information, needy patients and their families have turned to Twitter (TWTR), Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or LinkedIn, beg for help.
Influential people on social media, from Bollywood actors and cricketers to cartoonists and entrepreneurs, have stepped up SOS calls on their accounts. Others have offered to cook, clean homes and walk pets to Covid-19 patients. Some have even managed to find help for friends using the dating app Tinder.

On LinkedIn, companies and nonprofits have launched donation initiatives, Ashutosh Gupta, the company’s country manager for India, said in an email. Raheel Khursheed, Twitter’s former head of news in India, said reinforcing messages was a way that Indians could feel they were helping.

“It’s loving to see others help Covid-19 patients on Twitter, but it’s also worrying to see how little we can do,” said Khursheed, who now runs a video streaming company. “We do not know what to do in a pandemic. I do not have an oxygen cylinder at home, so other than amplifying, I can not do much.”

But even as Native Americans turn to social media during one of the country’s darkest hours, Modi appears to be cracking down on the big platforms in an attempt to stifle disagreement. Last month, Twitter removed several tweets about Covid-19 at the request of the Indian government, including some that were critical of the prime minister’s handling of the pandemic.

New Delhi’s intervention has put social media companies in a difficult position in one of their biggest markets, squeezed between their users and a government that recently introduced new rules that could make them responsible for not removing controversial posts.

In this aerial photo taken on April 26, burning pyres of victims lost their lives due to Covid-19 are seen at a cremation site in New Delhi.

Censorship fear

Every day, the images on social media of the anguish unfolding in India are shared in between rising public anger against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for not doing enough to control the brutal second wave. In addition to asking for help, people post critical comments using popular hashtags, including #ResignModi, #SuperSpreaderModi, and #WhoFailedIndia.

Twitter declined to reveal the number of Covid-related posts on its platform in India, and when asked about its India-related traffic during this increase, Facebook sent CNN Business a list of seven community groups working on pandemic-related issues.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political party continued to hold election rallies in April despite the crisis.

In a statement last week, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said it had asked Twitter, Facebook and others to remove about 100 posts from users it accused of spreading false or misleading information. Users had created “panic” over the latest Covid-19 wave by “using unrelated, old and out of context images or graphics, shared posts and misinformation about Covid-19 protocols,” the ministry said.

A Twitter spokesman confirmed that the company had withheld these tweets in India – but users outside could still see them. Modi is particularly active on Twitter with over 41 million followers.

The government order angered many social media users who criticized New Delhi for focusing on its own image instead of the crisis.

Pratik Sinha, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, said he does not buy the government’s explanation that it went after fake news. “There are hundreds of thousands of posts with fake news on social media during the pandemic. Why only take down these 100 and leave the others?” he said. “Many tweets [which were removed] was in the form of meaning without element of misinformation, ”he added.

Some of the tweets were sent by opposition politicians accusing Modi of the devastating Covid-19 wave.

Pawan Khera, a spokesman for the opposition party’s congress, sent a legal message to Twitter requesting him to re-enter his position, questioning the Modi government to allow mass gatherings at Kumbh Mela – one of the largest religious pilgrimages on earth. – and hold election meetings. The statement said the removal of his tweets was “arbitrary” and “illegal.” Twitter has not responded to a request for comment.
Supporters of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are waving at a helicopter carrying the prime minister as he arrives for a meeting on April 10.

New uncertainty

Days after Twitter blocked posts critical of Modi’s response to the crisis, BJP – driven state Uttar Pradesh pressed criminal charges against 26-year-old Shashank Yadav, who used the platform to try to find an oxygen cylinder for dying grandfather according to the BBC.
Yadav has “been booked to spread misleading information” about oxygen supply, a police officer told the Indian Express newspaper.
On Friday, India’s Supreme Court told states that they should not target citizens who communicate their complaints on social media. “Let us hear their voices. We will treat this as contempt if any citizen is harassed, if they want bed or oxygen,” India’s Supreme Court said.
This is not the first time Twitter has been caught up in the government’s efforts to crack down on disagreement.
In February this year, when farmers were protesting against Modi’s new agricultural laws, the company teamed up with the Indian government on its order to close accounts. While Twitter ultimately complied with part of the order, it refused to act against journalists, activists or politicians.

“What I’m surprised about is that this time Twitter actively removed these tweets – in what appears to be an act of censorship – when they stood up to the government in February,” said Nikhil Pahwa, an Internet activist and founder by tech site MediaNama. .

So what has changed since then? Pahwa pointed to India’s new rules for Big Tech companies, which were revealed shortly after Twitter showed resistance. Under the new guidelines, major social media companies must appoint a compliance manager who can be held accountable in any procedure if selected content is not removed, legal observers say.

“The officer can be held personally liable in criminal cases regarding hosted content if the platform does not meet a number of obligations now imposed on social media companies, including an obligation to take down content based on a government order,” Anirudh Rastogi, founder of the technical law firm Ikigaw Law, told CNN Business.

Shortly after the release of the new rules, the government responded to reports of company employees risking arrest if they did not comply, never “threatening employees on any of the social media platforms with jail time.”

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Twitter is not the only company that last week drew attention to lay off posts.

On Wednesday, Facebook blocked posts with #ResignModi for several hours. “We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked for it and has since restored it,” Facebook said in a statement.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai told CNN’s Poppy Harlow last week that his company has not received any recent requests from the government to remove content.

And Pichai remains optimistic about being able to work amicably with the authorities in the country. “I believe that one of India’s strengths is a deep – rooted democratic tradition based on freedom of expression and allowing for diversity of views … In the past, we have been able to work constructively with governments around the world. world and we will continue this approach here, “said Pichai.

India is one of the biggest markets for Big Tech companies and it would be difficult for them to stand firm if the Modi government continues to put pressure on them.

Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, has 400 million users in India, more than in any other country. Twitter does not break down user data for India, but third-party surveys suggest it is one of its major markets. Professional social network LinkedIn counts India as its second largest market with more than 76 million users.

So far, most of these companies are close to the impact of the new rules on their operations. Experts do not think they have much choice but to comply if they continue to operate in the fast-growing market.

“I hope Twitter stands up for its users and rolls back [their decision to block tweets,]said Khursheed. But there is not much room for maneuver in terms of compliance, because now there is a prison for this kind of thing. “

“Institutions protecting freedom of expression in the United States are far stronger than they are in India.”

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