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India's Government Is Telling Facebook, Twitter To Remove Critical Posts


India is grappling with a devastating surge in COVID cases, sending its health system to the verge of collapse. Now the Indian government has ordered Facebook and Twitter to take down posts, many of which show just how dire things really are, and the social companies are complying. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond is here to explain why. And, Shannon, we're going to start, of course, by noting Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. Help us understand how the Indian government has made this approach to social media companies.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Right. The government says it's ordered Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to take down about a hundred posts. And according to local media reports, the government says these were cases where it said people were misusing social media to create panic during the pandemic. And so sources familiar with the companies tell me that Twitter and Facebook have complied in some of these cases but not all of them. And what that means is for some of these posts, they are blocking them from appearing on their services in India, although we can still see them outside of India.

CORNISH: Can you give an example of the kind of post that might have been taken down?

BOND: Yeah. So many were critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's management of this crisis. They've been sharing pictures of the devastation in India, pictures of bodies lying on the ground. Some were showing burning funeral pyres side by side with these big political rallies that were held in recent months. And some of these were from really high-profile users. So these were people like journalists and even political opponents of Modi. And now, of course, Audie, India is the world's largest democracy, but this is an escalating pattern that we have seen from Modi's government of stifling dissent.

CORNISH: I want to come back to that. But first, these companies are always talking about freedom of expression - right? - talking about it like a core value. Why are they saying they're complying with this request?

BOND: Right. I think they're in a pretty difficult situation here. You know, if they want to operate in a country like India, they have to follow local laws. So, you know, Twitter said in a statement it's complying with Indian law. That's its policy. So even if a post does not break Twitter's rules, if it breaks local law, Twitter will block the post in that country. And, you know, these - there are real consequences here. Just a few months ago, India threatened to throw Twitter employees in jail when Twitter refused to block some of Modi's critics on the platform.

Now, Facebook declined to comment on this, and it's a little hard to know much more about what's happening inside the companies. Indian law limits what the companies can say about these government orders, so we don't know exactly how many of these posts actually have been blocked out of, you know, the total number of takedown notices the government has issued. But clearly, this is a case where this order is in conflict with the values these companies say they were founded on, like free speech - this idea that, you know, they provide a platform for anyone.

CORNISH: Is it fair to say it's also, like, a major profit market, right?

BOND: Yeah. I mean, India is a huge market - hundreds of millions of users. Facebook, its WhatsApp messaging service are very popular there. Twitter is less so. But, you know, Modi himself - he's a big Twitter user. He's actually now the world leader with the most followers. And at the same time, these companies and their products - they're providing really powerful tools to people in India right now to, you know, raise money, crowdsource urgently needed medical aid in this moment of this COVID crisis. And, of course, people are using them to criticize the government. But we're seeing that criticism is clearly sort of being received by Modi's government as a threat, so we're seeing this increasingly aggressive pattern of crackdowns on dissent by his government. And, you know, this is just the latest example of that.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Shannon Bond.

Thank you.

BOND: Thanks so much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.