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


He’s not the only one organizing relief efforts on social media.

Over the past two weeks, as the Covid-19 crisis in India deepened, America’s social media giants have become platforms of hope for millions of people. The world’s second most populous country has recorded more than 18 million cases since the start of the pandemic – and its healthcare infrastructure has collapsed under pressure, with hospitals running out of oxygen and medicine.
As authorities strive to provide adequate information, distressed patients and their families have turned to Twitter (TWTR), Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or LinkedIn, asking for help.
Social media influencers, Bollywood actors and cricketers at cartoon artists and entrepreneurs, have amplified SOS calls on their accounts. Others have offered to prepare meals, clean homes and walk pets for patients with Covid-19. Some have even managed to find help for friends using Tinder dating app.

On LinkedIn, companies and nonprofits have launched giving initiatives, Ashutosh Gupta, the company’s country manager for India, said in an email. Raheel Khursheed, former Twitter news manager in India, said amplifying messages was a way for Indians to feel like they were helping.

“It is endearing to see other people helping Covid-19 patients on Twitter, but it is also painful how much there is little we can do,” said Khursheed, who now heads a video streaming company. “We don’t know what to do in a pandemic. I don’t have an oxygen cylinder at home, so other than amplification there isn’t much I can do.”

But even as Indians turn to social media during one of the country’s darkest hours, Modi appears to be cracking down on major platforms in an attempt to quell dissent. Last month, Twitter deleted several tweets about Covid-19 at the request of the Indian government, some of which criticized the Prime Minister’s handling of the pandemic.

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

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

Fears of censorship

Every day, images are shared on social media of the angst unfolding in India, in the midst of Rising public anger against the ruling Bharatiya Janata (BJP) party for not doing enough to control the brutal second wave. In addition to asking for help, people post critical comments using trending 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 push, Facebook sent CNN Business a list of seven community groups working on issues. linked to the pandemic.

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

In a statement last week, India’s electronics and information technology ministry said it had asked Twitter, Facebook and others to remove around 100 user posts it accused to disseminate false or misleading information. Users had created ‘panic’ about the latest wave of Covid-19 by ‘using unrelated, old and out of context images or visuals, commonly sensitive messages and misinformation about Covid-19 protocols ”The ministry said.

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the company withheld these tweets in India – but users outside could still see them. Modi is particularly active on Twitter, with more than 41 million subscribers.

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 fact-checking website Alt News, said he disliked the government’s explanation that it was attacking fake news. “There are hundreds of thousands of messages with fake news on social media during the pandemic, why just delete those 100 and let the rest stay?” he said. “Lots of tweets [which were removed] were in the form of an opinion without any element of disinformation, ”he added.

Some of the tweets were posted by opposition politicians, who blamed Modi for the devastating outbreak of Covid-19.

Pawan Khera, congressional spokesperson for the opposition party, sent a legal notice to Twitter demanding the reinstatement of his post, in which he questioned the Modi government for allowing mass rallies at Kumbh Mela – one of the greatest religious pilgrimages on Earth – and staging election rallies. The advisory said the deletion of his tweets was “arbitrary” and “illegal”. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Facebook, Twitter: a lifeline for Indians in the Covid crisis and a threat to Narendra Modi

New uncertainty

Days after Twitter blocked posts criticizing Modi’s response to the crisis, BJP-run Uttar Pradesh state police filed a complaint against 26-year-old Shashank Yadav, who used the platform. -form to try to find an oxygen cylinder for her dying grandfather. , according to the BBC.
Yadav was “convicted of spreading misleading information” about the oxygen supply, a police officer told The Indian Express.
The Indian Supreme Court on Friday told states not to target citizens communicating their grievances on social media. “Let us hear their voices. We will treat it as contempt if a citizen is harassed if they want a bed or oxygen,” India’s highest court said.
This isn’t the first time Twitter has been caught up in the government’s efforts to quell dissent.
In February this year, as farmers protested Modi’s new farm laws, the company clashed with the Indian government for his order of count. While Twitter ultimately complied with part of the ordinance, it refused to take action against journalists, activists or politicians.

“What amazes me is that this time Twitter actively deleted these tweets – in what appears to be an act of censorship – after they opposed the government in February,” Nikhil Pahwa said, an Internet activist and founder of the technology website MediaNama. .

So what has changed since then? Pahwa pointed to India’s new rules for big tech companies, which were unveiled shortly after Twitter resisted. Under the new guidelines, large social media companies must appoint a compliance officer, who can be held accountable in any proceedings if the reported content is not removed, according to legal observers.

“The officer may be personally liable in criminal proceedings relating to hosted content, if the platform does not meet a number of obligations now imposed on social media companies, including an obligation to remove content. based on a government decision, “Anirudh Rastogi, founder of specialist law firm Ikigaw Law, told CNN Business.

Shortly after the publication of the new rules, the government reacted to reports that company employees could be arrested if they did not comply, saying it had never “threatened punishment.” ‘imprisonment of the employees of one of the social media platforms’.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place

Twitter isn’t the only company to gain attention last week for deleting posts.

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

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

And Pichai remains optimistic to be able to work amicably with the country’s authorities. “I think one of India’s strengths is a deep-rooted democratic tradition, founded on freedom of expression and allowing for diversity of viewpoints … In the past, we have been able to work constructively with governments around the world, and we will continue this approach here, ”Pichai said.

India is one of the biggest markets for big tech companies, and it would be difficult for them to hold on 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 any other country. Twitter doesn’t break down user data for India, but third-party research suggests it is one of its biggest markets. The professional social network LinkedIn counts India as its second largest market with more than 76 million users.

For now, most of these companies are quiet about the impact of the new rules on their operations. Experts do not think they have any choice but to comply, if they want to continue operating in the market.

“I hope Twitter will stand up for its users and go back [their decision to block tweets,]Khursheed said. But there isn’t a lot of leeway in terms of compliance because now there are jail terms for that sort of thing. “

“The institutions that protect free speech in the United States are much stronger than they are in India.”

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