Thousands across India are outraged after the government ordered social media platform Twitter to remove posts critical of its handling of the virus.
A Twitter spokesperson confirmed it had blocked some material from being viewed in India.
The country faces a massive surge in cases, with many of its hospitals facing an oxygen shortage.
One Twitter user accused the government of “finding it easier to take down tweets than ensure oxygen supplies”.
India recorded 352,991 new infections on Monday and 2,812 deaths – the highest single-day spike so far.
‘A humanitarian disaster’
The government made an emergency order to censor the tweets, Twitter revealed on Lumen, a database that keeps track of global government orders around online content.
Twitter did not specify which content it had taken down but media reports say it includes a tweet from a politician in West Bengal holding Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly responsible for Covid deaths, and from an actor criticising Mr Modi for holding political rallies while the virus raged.
Twitter said it reviewed content when it received a “valid legal request” – in this case, the Indian government is said to have cited the Information Technology Act 2000.
“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,” the platform said.
An Indian official said the material in question was misleading or could spark panic.
“We cannot allow fake news that harms the country,” BJP national spokesperson Gopal Agarwal told the BBC.
The crisis was being worsened by fake news, he explained, pointing out that social media content had to be in line with the rule of law.
An official of the Minister of Electronics and IT had earlier told The Hindu newspaper that it was “necessary to take action against those who are misusing social media… for unethical purposes.”
But on social media, many criticised the government for focusing on “censorship” while the country was in the midst of a “humanitarian disaster”.
The whole India is petrified, citizens are searching for emergency help, coordinating life support & trying to keep the government accountable, but the GOI, instead of saving lives, is bringing social media censorship. Condemnable! https://t.co/DT43bWltHa
— Amal Chandra (@ens_socialis) April 25, 2021
Because you know it’s easier to take down tweets than it is to ensure oxygen supplies.
Via Shuddhabrata Sengupta
“On the Centre’s request, Twitter takes down 52 tweets criticising India’s handling of the pandemic”
— Aftab Alam (@aftabistan) April 25, 2021
New mask launched by the System. pic.twitter.com/d86t14kwsQ
— Kajol Srinivasan (@LOLrakshak) April 25, 2021
Many online also criticised Twitter for complying with the order, calling them “complicit”.
@jack @Twitter I u/s that certain tweets need to be censored for inciting / spreading hatred, but the tweets by handles banned by @TwitterIndia are showing the state of governance in India. Banking them is a cover up & your firm is seen as being complicit. https://t.co/CXEWEnCC80
— Sanjeev Hariharan (@sanjeevh) April 26, 2021
India is in the middle of a humanitarian disaster and Twitter preventing that from being shared is a moral failure https://t.co/gpn531ew0I
— nilay patel (@reckless) April 24, 2021
Twitter has been overrun by reports of people falling sick, needing oxygen and beds. It has in the past been criticised for bowing to pressure from the Indian government.
In February, the platform blocked more than 500 accounts linked to ongoing farmer protests against agricultural reforms after the government issued a legal notice. If Twitter had not complied, it could have meant jail time for Twitter’s employees in India.
Earlier this year, the Indian government believed it had beaten the virus. New cases had fallen to 11,000 by mid-February, vaccines were being exported and in March the health minister said India was “in the endgame” of the pandemic.
However, since then an increase in cases has been driven by the emergence of new variants, as well as mass gatherings, such as the Kumbh Mela festival, which drew millions of pilgrims earlier this month.
Mr Modi has faced increased criticism for lifting restrictions and resuming large gatherings.
On Sunday, the prime minister said the second wave was a storm that had “shaken the nation” but that a “positive approach” was key to fighting the pandemic.