Indian Covid crisis prompts surge in state social media censorship

The Indian government seems to be trying to silence public speculation that the recent surge in Covid cases was caused by political gatherings.

The most egregious manifestation of this state censorship is the government’s decision to send legal notices to Twitter, ordering the takedown of tweets critical of it. According to Medianama, at least 50 tweets have been the subject of these demands, with the authors including politicians and actors. Activist Pieter Friedrich was the subject of one such demand.

The Indian The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology confirmed it sent over 100 such requests to a variety of social media platforms for a bunch of reasons loosely related to public safety. Meanwhile Twitter’s public statements on the matter reveal the dilemma it faces trying to balance the rights of its users with government pressure.

Coincidentally the Indian crackdown on dissent comes as the UK House of Lords inquiry into freedom of expression online welcomes its next batch of expert witnesses, including representatives of Twitter and Facebook. Among the questions expected to be asked are: Why has Twitter banned Donald Trump but not Ayatollah Khamenei? And why did Facebook limit the reach of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden without evidence to disprove it? So there will clearly be an emphasis on political censorship of social media.

Times of crisis often present the greatest threat to civil liberties too, as governments are inclined to grant themselves greater powers in the name of tackling the crisis. The current Covid situation in India does seem to qualify as a crisis, but that still doesn’t justify the censorship of all government criticism. Sooner or later the social media companies may be forced to defy these government demands, which could set an important global precedent.

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