"Not a surprise. But terrifying nonetheless."
That's how Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein responded Sunday to news that India had requested—and Twitter had agreed—to have numerous tweets critical of the Modi government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic blocked from the popular social media platform.
Twitter has complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised India's handling of the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. These tweets, which are now inaccessible to Indian users of the social media website, include posts by 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.
Deep and Chunduru confirmed that several people who had their postings blocked were informed by Twitter what was coming ahead of the move and that the decision was based on a request made by the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In response to request, a Twitter spokesperson sent Medianama the following statement:
When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. 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. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they're aware that we've received a legal order pertaining to the account. We notify the user(s) by sending a message to the email address associated with the account(s), if available. Read more about our Legal request FAQs. The legal requests that we receive are detailed in the biannual Twitter Transparency Report, and requests to withhold content are published on Lumen.
India is currently experiencing a serious surge in Covid-19 cases—averaging over 300,000 new daily cases over the last week and oxygen supplies running low and hospitals overwhelmed—as Modi's handling of the pandemic has come under significant scrutiny from both within the country and from abroad.
Modi's Hindu nationalist government, reported Buzzfeed on Saturday,
also restricted dozens of tweets that criticized Modi or shared pictures of India's overflowing crematoriums and hospitals, in addition to a tweet from the Indian American Muslim Council, a Washington D.C-based advocacy organization of Indian American Muslims. That group shared a Vice story about the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage attended by hundreds of thousands of Indians earlier this month, and which turned into a super spreader event.
"While hundreds of thousands of Covid patients are literally gasping for breath, the government's alacrity in pressuring Twitter to block tweets critical of its handling of the crisis shows the administration's moral compass continues to point in a direction that is shamelessly self-serving," the Indian American Muslim Council said in a statement.
Rana Ayyub—a journalist who has been writing dispatches from India for the Washington Post, TIME magazine, and other outlets—reacted with scorn Sunday to the latest reports, tweeting:
"I'm sorry," wrote epidemiologist and health economist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, "but Modi's authoritarian government can go to hell if they dare to silence the true human suffering" now taking place in India.