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‘Misinformation on Covid’: IT Min asks social media cos to remove more posts

Apart from Twitter and Facebook, some Instagram users also complained that their accounts had been barred from receiving direct messages or posting leads about the availability of hospitals, oxygen, beds, medicines and other medical essentials.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi |
Updated: April 26, 2021 6:02:05 am
The notices sent to Twitter and Facebook to take down the posts classified the content and the users into three main categories.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has sent roughly 100 takedown notices to Twitter and Facebook to remove content and posts which it alleges are “unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals, communally sensitive posts and misinformation” about Covid-19 protocols.

Senior officials in the MeitY said the notice was sent by it based on the recommendations of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

“When the entire country is putting up a brave fight against Covid-19 pandemic, some people are misusing social media to create panic. The ministry has asked these URLs (uniform resource locator) to be removed to prevent obstructions in fight against the pandemic and escalation of public order due to these posts,” a senior MeitY official said.

Defending the removal notices, MeitY officials said that while social media could and was being used to criticise the government, seek help and even offer suggestions on handling of Covid-19 pandemic, it was also “necessary to take action against those users who are misusing social media during this grave humanitarian crisis for unethical purposes”.

Apart from Twitter and Facebook, some Instagram users also complained that their accounts had been barred from receiving direct messages or posting leads about the availability of hospitals, oxygen, beds, medicines and other medical essentials.

While the users claimed it was being done at the instructions of the MeitY, sources in the ministry said it had nothing to do with the takedown.

“This is not correct. The ministry never takes such steps. (We) either block a content or block the entire account only if it violated IT rules,” another official said. Emails sent to Instagram did not elicit any response.

The notices sent to Twitter and Facebook to take down the posts classified the content and the users into three main categories.

The first list contains names of handles and content which spreads misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic by claiming it was a conspiracy, and that despite them never having used a face mask, they or anyone in their vicinity had contracted the virus.

The second set of tweets that the MeitY wanted to be taken down allegedly used old and unrelated visuals of patients and dead bodies and tried to show them as related to the pandemic.

Among these are tweets by Kafeel Khan, a Gorakhpur doctor who had been jailed by the Uttar Pradesh government after he had raised questions on lack of oxygen in 2017, while another one is by filmmaker Avinash Das.

The third set of tweets, the access to which has now been blocked in India, are those which were trying to “create communal hatred by inciting religious passions”. Among these is a post on Facebook (since taken down) which alleged that the vaccine being manufactured in India contained cow’s blood.

The latest takedown notice sent by the MeitY also includes posts to which Twitter said it had blocked access for Indian users based on the Central government’s legal requests.

On Saturday, Twitter had submitted a report to the Lumen Database, an independent research project which studies cease and desist letters surrounding online content, about the action it had taken on more than 50 such tweets, over the past month.

As per the information submitted by Twitter on the Lumen Database, some of the URLs whose access has now been blocked in India, contained information about the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic and were critical of the government’s handling of the same. Some other posts and URLs, on the other hand, showed pictures and videos of the recent Maoist ambush in Chhattisgarh that left as many as 22 police personnel dead.

The tweets were sent by a journalist with a leading daily, a filmmaker, a Member of Parliament, a Member of Legislative Assembly, and an actor. All these tweets have been withheld in India, which means that Twitter users in the country would not be able to view their content.

Though the MeitY has in its takedown notices said that the action was to fight misinformation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, free speech activists said the government was using its might to curb criticism. Apart from the MeitY, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan too warned on Twitter on Saturday that those spreading misinformation in the state would be booked by state law enforcement agencies.

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