Modi government chokes dissent on India’s COVID apocalypse with social media blocks

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People wait outside a COVID-19 vaccination centre in Kolkata on 28 April 2021.


Image: Getty

Politicians and others are dubbing it a “Modi Made Disaster” on Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media, but you may never read these posts.

This is because the Indian government has been busy ordering the platforms to take down the large number of posts flagged by them that are critical of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government’s handling of the latest devastating wave of the pandemic.

“Not a surprise. But terrifying nonetheless,” tweeted author and activist Naomi Klein, as reported by the publication Truthout, who has previously written about the authoritarian ways in which Modi’s government has throttled basic free speech in India.

Over the last six days, India has registered over an average of 330,000 COVID-19 cases per day, and two days ago, the number of cases crossed 350,000, making it the site of the largest single day number of cases in the word so far.

Many estimates suggest that even these numbers are extremely undercounted.

Reports have described scenes of innumerable bodies being cremated in parking lots instead of cremation grounds in various cities, so overwhelming is the death count. These images haunt the internet and is giving fuel to the fierce criticism that is now dogging Mr Modi.

CHOKING DISSENT

Modi’s administration, though, hopes to choke that potential torrent into a trickle, so it doesn’t besmirch his reputation.

The WSJ reports that according to the Lumen database, a Harvard University project that tracks requests to remove online content, the Indian government asked Twitter to de-list as many as 100 posts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic over just the last few days during which the virus has laid waste to the country.

Some of these posts were by rival politicians such as one by Moloy Ghatak, an opposition party leader in the state of West Bengal, who wrote: “India will never forgive PM @narendramodi for underplaying the corona situation in the country and letting so many people die due to mismanagement. At a time when India is going through a health crisis, PM chose to export millions of vaccine to other nations.” He used a hashtag in Hindi #ModiHataoDeshBachao, which means “Remove Modi, save the country”.

Others were by photographers, journalists, and filmmakers. Truthout details how a post that showed patients lying on the floor while being treated in makeshift tents is now coming up as blocked, as just one example of many.

Another post, by Reuters chief photographer, Danish Siddiqui, showed images of mourning families in packed hospitals and makeshift cremation sites.

“Never imagined that I would be a witness to these scenes in my hometown. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to wreak havoc in New Delhi, India’s national capital. Pictures taken on 23.04.21,” the blocked post said.

It may seem absurd that many of these posts contain nothing outside the realm of reportage but nevertheless have been blocked.

Yet, chances are you won’t find any honest analysis of what is taking place in India on either Indian news sites or television channels, say critics. Most of them are either champions of the government since they get the bulk of their business from them, or they are simply too terrified to say anything that could be seen as tarnishing Modi and his large cult of followers.

This is not without good reason. In the last few years alone, India has imprisoned a large number of journalists, poets, writers, academics, stand-up comedians, and activists who have dared to offer solidarity to historically oppressed minority groups.

The Muslim stand-up comedian in question was famously arrested for a joke he didn’t tell.

GROSS INCOMPETENCE

Finding a pliant public may no longer be so easy.

It is becoming painfully clear from dispatches, such as the one in Time Magazine, that instead of spending the last six to twelve months honing a national COVID strategy, building up resources such as desperately-needed oxygen supplies now being shipped in from foreign shores, ramping up vaccination production, and preparing the country for the onslaught of the next wave, Modi and his ministers did very little. 

In fact, it was much worse.

Reports proliferating the internet suggest that not only did the government not persuade the Election Commission to postpone elections that were scheduled for early this year, it went on a massive campaigning spree across five Indian states that are going to the polls right now.

Modi personally addressed 20 political rallies, each of them with thousands of unmasked people attending.

There’s a video embedded in an NDTV news story where Modi is boasting of the large crowd he has drawn just a few days ago, even when India at the time had already registered two days of over 200,000 COVID cases.

Incomprehensibly, Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) actually approved of India’s gargantuan religious fair, the Kumbh Mela, being brought forward from its scheduled date next year to this April — despite the pandemic. Even when things appeared to be getting worse, they inexplicably endorsed the fair.

100 million pilgrims attended it over the past few weeks possibly making it the largest super-spreader ever in the history of contagions.

As Indians either lie dying in the corridors of hospitals or on foothpaths outside, there has been no sign of anyone in any governmental authority on location helping to ameliorate the crisis.

Instead, Yogi Adityanath, a Modi acolyte and hardliner who is chief minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh that has been accused of terrorising Muslims, had declared that anyone talking about oxygen or hospital bed shortages in the state would have their properties seized and that they would be arrested.

Meanwhile, images of desperate, frantic, and sick in the hospitals and cremation grounds of the capital city of Lucknow populated the internet.

A COMPLICIT SOCIAL MEDIA?

Have Twitter and Facebook betrayed India in its time of need — a need for honest news, information, analysis, and debate — by capitulating too easily?

Twitter says that the blocked posts are not being taken down entirely. They can be seen in North America, but are being blocked in India “as per local regulations”.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law,” a Twitter spokesperson said. 

“If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only.”

The Indian government, via its Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, defended its actions stating that “certain people are misusing social media to create panic in society” through false images and said that they were using its Information Technology Act of 2000 to request that the tweets be removed so they could “protect the sovereignty and integrity of India and maintain public order”.

Twitter has gone through this before. When the government rammed three farming laws down the throat of Parliament without discussion or debate last year, never mind having consultations with farmers themselves, there was an outpouring of protests and support for the farmer’s movement.

The Modi government was livid, dubbed the whole lot to be “separatists”, and directed Twitter to take them down. When Twitter stalled, the government in true form threatened to throw the social media company’s staff in jail for seven years. 500 accounts were duly blocked by Twitter.

Then the Modi government went one absurd step further. They jailed a 22-year old climate activist whose parents are farmers for forwarding a “toolkit”, a standard MS-Word template that is globally used towards mobilisation.

Modi made sure that the Delhi police travelled all the way to Bangalore to cuff her in front of her mother, take her back to Delhi, and throw her in a jail until a judge could hear her case. A thoroughly antiquated colonial-era law of sedition was used as a legal pretext, including the now familiar explanation of being a “threat to the territorial integrity of India” to imprison her.

Twitter may be a reluctant actor here, but Facebook’s actions are at another level of complicity. As I explained in this prior ZDNet piece, Facebook’s India head Ankhi Das has been a long-time acolyte of Modi.

She has used her talents to train Modi’s team to win Chief Ministership of the state of Gujarat and supported him during the 2014 elections, which Modi won.

Last year, Das refused to take down incendiary posts by a BJP politician that goaded Hindu mobs to kill as many as 53 people in India, say local observers.

So, to think that Facebook is going to put the interests of Indian citizens ahead of the BJP may be naïve at best.

As the brutal nightmare of the past few weeks keeps repeating itself daily, one wonders how much the current carnage will damage Modi and what role will social media play in his continued takedown? After all, you can’t strongarm a virus into going away.

This wave is expected to peak in mid to late May, where the daily infection count is predicted to rise to a horrific 500,000 with a projected daily death rate of at least 5,700. India’s respected environmental magazine Down to Earth projects a million deaths by August.

By then, how much of the narrative will Modi be able to control?

Modi is not one of the world’s shrewdest politicians for nothing. Despite putting India into reverse — he has devastated its economy in the seven years he has been Prime Minister, fomented deadly communal strife, jailed ordinary citizens including farmers and students for expressing their views, coddled big business, and presided over the oppression of its minority groups — he has prevailed, and been re-elected to power. He has thrived.

However, escaping the wrath of the virus will have to be his biggest and most dazzling trick as yet.

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