On Sunday, India’s government issued a command to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter: Remove social media posts that denigrate the government’s handling of the flu pandemic.
The directive targeted some 100 posts, including criticism from opposition leaders and requests for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to quit. The government said that the posts might cause fear, that they featured out-of-context photographs, and that they would impede its response to the pandemic.
For the time being, the corporations have agreed with the requests, in part by making the posts invisible to people accessing the sites from India. Companies have previously restored content after concluding that it did not violate the law.
Censorship orders were issued as India’s public health crisis continued to worsen and exploded into a political conflict with India’s prime minister, putting the government of the United States in an interesting position: Who decides what can be said online?
More than 350,000 new infections were reported on Monday, and another 2,800 people died, making for the fifth consecutive day on which a new record has been set in daily infection statistics. Almost half of all new cases in the world currently originate in the country. Its health-care system appears to be on the verge of collapse. Patients in hospitals around the country are running out of oxygen.
Hospitals in New Delhi, the capital, turned away patients last weekend due to a lack of oxygen and beds. Last week, at least 22 patients died in a hospital in Nashik after their oxygen supplies were cut off due to a leak.
Body images on wooden hospital beds and innumerable fires in overworked crematories have gone popular on the internet. Desperate patients and their families have appealed to the government for help online, shocking a global audience.
After holding enormous political gatherings with no consideration for social distancing, Mr. Modi has been chastised for ignoring expert advice about the hazards of easing limits. Some of the footage that has since been taken down in India underlined this discrepancy by juxtaposing Mr. Modi’s rallies with the flames of funeral pyres.
Mr. Modi attempted to defuse the situation in a radio address on Sunday. The country had been “shaken” by the “storm” of diseases, he said.
Twitter stated in an emailed statement that if content “is considered to be illegal in a particular area but not in violation of Twitter’s standards,” it “may limit access to the content in India only,” and that it would alert users in that situation. Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Moloy Ghatak, a labour minister in the opposition-ruled West Bengal state, where Mr. Modi’s party is hoping to make major gains in an ongoing election, was one of the tweets deleted from view. Mr. Ghatak charged Mr. Modi with “mismanagement” and said he was personally responsible for the deaths. He compared Mr. Modi to Nero, the Roman emperor, for holding political rallies and exporting vaccinations during a “health crisis,” and put photographs of Mr. Modi and his electoral rallies with those of the cremations.
Revanth Reddy, a sitting member of parliament, used a hashtag to blame Mr. Modi for the “disaster” in another tweet. “India is registering almost 2 lakh cases every day,” it stated, referring to 200,000 cases in an Indian numbering unit. “Vaccine shortages, drug shortages, and an increase in the number of deaths.”
The latest measures to stifle online expression exacerbate a spat between American social media firms and Prime Minister Modi’s government. In recent months, the two sides have sparred over India’s government’s attempt to more carefully monitor what is posted online, a policy that critics believe is being used to suppress government critics.