The Indian government on Thursday dismissed as misleading a report by an American newspaper that alleged that Facebook’s temporary blocking of the “#resignmodi” hashtag the previous night was an attempt by the Centre to curb public dissent.
“A story by WSJ [Wall Street Journal] attributing removal of a certain hashtag by Facebook to GOI’s efforts to curb public dissent is misleading on facts and mischievous in intent,” the Ministry of Electronics and IT said in a tweet. “[Government] has not issued any direction to remove this hashtag. Facebook has also clarified that it was removed by mistake.”
Posts that used the hashtag “#resignmodi” were critical of the Narendra Modi-led government’s handling of the ongoing coronavirus crisis in India. Social media users searching for the hashtag on Wednesday night were shown a message that said such posts were “temporarily hidden here” because “some content in those posts goes against our community standards”.
The hashtag was later restored after users pointed it out on Twitter. A Facebook spokesperson said: “We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it.”
The hashtag, which was restored at 1.20 am on Thursday (Indian Standard Time), was hidden within India, the United States, Canada and England.
“It is pertinent to mention that on 5th March 2021 also, @WSJ had published a fake news with heading- ‘India Threatens Jail for Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter Employees’,” the ministry added. “Government had sent an official rebuttal of this completely fake and manufactured story to WSJ.”
The tweet referred to an article that said the government had threatened to imprison the employees of these tech companies as they were reluctant to take down posts related to farmers’ protests. The reports had cited people familiar with the warnings. “At least some of the written warnings cite specific, India-based employees at risk of arrest if the companies don’t comply, according to some of the people,” the report had said.
Notably in February, at the height of the farmers’ protest against three new agriculture laws, Twitter had withheld several accounts, including those of Caravan magazine and Kisan Ekta Morcha, an umbrella body of the protestors. The accounts were however, restored hours later. Twitter had said its action was in response to a legal demand.
Days later, the Centre had directed Twitter to block nearly 1,200 accounts with suspected links to Khalistan sympathisers or Pakistan. The government had said these accounts were causing a threat to public order amid the farmers’ protest.
On Thursday, the Indian government also urged the media to partner with ordinary Indians to collectively fight the pandemic at a “sensitive time” like this. “Media has a very important role to play in acting as a force multiplier to the efforts of our front-line workers and medical professionals,” the ministry added.
India is currently in the middle of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Cases are increasing at an alarming rate and the healthcare system is under severe stress. India has recorded more than 3 lakh cases a day for the past eight days, and also registered record high daily deaths.
International coverage of India’s pandemic has been critical of religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela and massive election rallies in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, which recently went to the polls. India has taken strong exception to these articles that blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged incompetence, and dismissed them as baseless or malicious reports.
Last week, Twitter took down 52 tweets, most of which were critical of India’s handling of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, in compliance with the Centre’s request. The tweets, which were no longer accessible in India, included those posted by Congress MP Revanth Reddy, West Bengal minister Moloy Ghatak, actor Vineet Kumar Singh and filmmakers Vinod Kapri and Avinash Das.