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India asks social media firms to remove content referring to Indian variant of COVID; MediaNama’s Take

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By Aihik Sur and Nikhil Pahwa

Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has asked social media platforms to take down any content that refers to the term ‘Indian variant of Coronavirus’, Reuters reported yesterday. MediaNama has seen a copy of the letter.

The letter, sent on Friday the 21st of May 2021, signed by Rakesh Maheshwari, Group Coordinator (cyber laws and e-security) in MEITY, said, “It has come to our knowledge that a false statement is being circulated online which implies that an Indian variant’ of corona virus is spreading across the countries. This is completely FALSE. There is no such variant of Covid-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has not associated the term “Indian Variant” with the B.1.617 variant of the Coronavirus.

The letter refers to a Press India Bureau release which sought to clarify that the World Health Organisation had not associated the term “Indian variant” with B.1.617. That release came in response to several media reports which termed the specific B.1.617 as Indian.

The letter then requests “All Social Media platforms” to “remove all the content that names, refers to, or implies ‘Indian variant” of corona virus “from your platform immediately”.

MediaNama’s Take (Nikhil Pahwa adds)

1. Request, not order: it’s worth noting that the MEITY has “requested” social media platforms to censor the content from their platform. It’s not an order, because MEITY lacks the backing of the law to order for the removal of such content. There is no law which allows the India government to ask for this kind of censorship, and I don’t think social media platforms should comply with an unlawful request.

2. Not illegal to call it an Indian variant: There is nothing patently illegal about calling this variant of the coronavirus the “Indian variant”. Calling it an Indian variant is a colloquial reference, not fake news. Connought Place is officially Rajiv Chowk, but nothing stops people from calling it Connought Place.

3. Mass censorship of news: Effectively this request from the Indian government impinges on the freedom of the press. News publications from across the globe have referred to this version of COVID19 as the Indian variant: from the BBC, Al Jazeera, Telegraph, Sky News, Voice of America, the Guardian, and several others. Removing these news items from the platforms amounts to mass censorship of news: distribution of news is just as protected as news itself. It’s unlikely that platforms will comply with such an untoward request. Will this news article be censored? Will every article that that references MEITY’s demand for Indian variant also be censored?

4. Has MEITY heard of the Streisand effect? What were they thinking? Another attempt to distract people from the tragedy that is the Indian governments handling of COVID19?

5. China envy: India has China-envy. It wants to exercise China like control over its social media. We should remember that China does similar things: they censored any Winnie the Pooh caricatures from Chinese social media because they were being used to make fun of Xi Jinping, and private platforms were forced to put in filters. The IT Rules essentially were a key step in the direction of creating guidelines for social media control, and while the Indian government did recommend proactive filtering of content by platforms, they stopped short of mandating filters. This doesn’t mean that setting up filters isn’t on the Indian governments roadmap. Remember that India did institute a filter/firewall in one part of the country: Kashmir.

6. What are Social Media platforms? We now have a definition, under the IT Rules, though it might change if the PDP Bill uses a different definition. Social media intermediaries are those “which primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its service”, and have more than 5 million registered users in India. Remember not to use the phrase “Indian variant” on Slack or Microsoft Teams, btw.

India has issued similar curbs earlier

In April, while complying to requests made by the Central government, Twitter censored 52 tweets that mostly criticised India’s handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. These tweets were from Revanth Reddy, a sitting Member of Parliament; Moloy Ghatak, a West Bengal state minister; actor Vineet Kumar Singh; and two filmmakers, Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.

In 2020, MEITY, while taking cognisance of the apparent misinformation regarding Covid-19 which was creating panic among citizens, urged social media to curb such misinformation. The ministry had also asked social media companies to run awareness campaigns on their platforms so that users do not share misinformation about COVID-19, which is likely to disturb public order and social tranquility.

Local administrations not far behind

Last month, while invoking powers under Sec 144, the Jabalpur district administration  imposed curbs on Covid-19 related posts. On April 27, the office of the District Magistrate issued an order signed by Jabalpur district collector Karamveer Sharma saying, “It has been reported by the Superintendent of Police Jabalpur.. that social media websites like WhatsApp, Facebook, is currently being used by anti-social elements of the district to spread misinformation, fake news regarding Covid-19. Efforts are being to create and atmosphere of fear in general public by this.”

Earlier in the same month, Indore administration too issued similar orders. District Magistrate of Indore on April 20 issued an order placing restrictions on comments and forwards related to coronavirus made on social media.

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