(ATF) India’s information technology (IT) on Friday asked social media companies to take down any content that refers to “Indian variant” of the coronavirus, according to Reuters, sparking another round of criticism over its handling of the pandemic.
India has the second-highest tally of COVID-19 cases in the world and has been reporting around 250,000 infections and over 4,000 deaths daily.
Prime Minister Modi and state authorities are facing blame for not adequately planning for the ongoing second wave of coronavirus infections, but the IT ministry insists that “false” information is being spread without any basis, which is hurting the country’s image.
“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 ministry said.
To be true, WHO on May 11 had said that the coronavirus variant B.1.617, first identified in India last year, was being classified as a variant of global concern.
World over though, coronavirus variants are generically referred to by doctors and health experts on the basis of where they are identified. This includes South Africa and Brazil variants.
Request, not order
While the ministry, that has asked social media platforms to censor content, lacks the backing of the law to enforce the “request”, social media executives say it would be difficult to take down all content using the word as there would be hundreds of thousands of such posts.
Critics add that such a move, besides leading to keyword-based censorship going forward, effectively also impinges on the freedom of press.
But the government says such censorship is necessary to stamp out misuse of social media during a grave humanitarian crisis.
Blaming the use of social media for “unethical purposes”, the Modi government last year, for instance, banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps after a border clash between troops from the two nations.
India had also threatened to jail employees of Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter after these platforms last year had briefly refused takedown requests. But that was withdrawn later when they eventually complied.
In February, India announced sprawling new rules to govern internet companies like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, to check increasing amounts of “fake news and violent content online.”
India is a critical market for global tech and social media companies as millions turn to social media to connect, communicate, and express themselves.
Consequently, India has emerged as one of the biggest markets for digital platforms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
As per data cited by the government, recently, the country has 530mn million WhatsApp users, 450mn YouTube users, 401mn Facebook users, while 210mn use Instagram and 1750mn use Twitter.
With reporting by Reuters.