NEW DELHI — With a devastating second wave of Covid-19 sweeping across India and lifesaving supplemental oxygen in short supply, India’s government on Sunday said it ordered Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to take down dozens of social media posts critical of its handling of the pandemic.
The order was aimed at roughly 100 posts that included critiques from opposition politicians and calls for Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to resign. The government said that the posts could incite panic, used images out of context, and could hinder its response to the pandemic.
The companies complied with the requests for now, in part by making the posts invisible to those using the sites inside India. In the past, the companies have reposted some content after determining that it didn’t break the law.
The takedown orders come as India’s public health crisis spirals into a political one, and set the stage for a widening struggle between American social media platforms and Mr. Modi’s government over who decides what can be said online.
On Sunday, the country reported more than 349,691 new infections and 2,767 deaths, marking the fourth consecutive day it set a world record in daily infection statistics, though experts warn that the true numbers are probably much higher. The country now accounts for almost half of all new cases globally. Its health system appears to be teetering. Hospitals across the country have scrambled to get enough oxygen for patients.
In New Delhi, the capital, hospitals this weekend turned away patients after running out of oxygen and beds. Last week, at least 22 patients were killed in a hospital in the city of Nashik, after a leak cut off their oxygen supplies.
Online photos of bodies on plywood hospital beds and the countless fires of overworked crematories have gone viral. Desperate patients and their families have pleaded online for help from the government, horrifying an international audience.
On Sunday evening, in one of many pleas for help on social media, Ajay Koli took to Twitter to find an oxygen cylinder in Delhi for his mother, who, he said, had tested positive 10 days ago. Mr. Koli said he lost his father on Saturday. “I don’t want to lose my mom now.”
Mr. Modi has been under attack for ignoring the advice of experts about the risks of loosening restrictions, after he held large political rallies with little regard for social distancing. Some of the content now offline in India highlighted that contradiction, using lurid images to contrast Mr. Modi’s rallies with the flames of funeral pyres.
In a radio address on Sunday, Mr. Modi sought to stem the fallout. He said that the “storm” of infections had left the country “shaken.”
“At this time, in order to win this battle, we have to give priority to experts and scientific advice,” he said.
One of the tweets removed from view was posted by Moloy Ghatak, a labor minister in the opposition-ruled West Bengal state, where Mr. Modi’s party hopes to make big gains in an ongoing election. Mr. Ghatak accused Mr. Modi of “mismanagement” and held him directly responsible for the deaths. His tweet included images of Mr. Modi and his election rallies beside those of the cremations and compared him to Nero, the Roman emperor, for choosing to hold political gatherings and exporting vaccines during a “health crisis.”
Another tweet from Revanth Reddy, a sitting member of the parliament, used a hashtag that blamed Mr. Modi for the “disaster.” “India recording over 2 lakh cases everyday,” it said, using an Indian numbering unit that means 200,000 cases. “Shortage of vaccines, shortage of medicines, increasing number of deaths.”
The new steps to muzzle online speech deepen a conflict between American social media platforms and Mr. Modi’s government. The two sides have tussled in recent months over a push by India’s government to more strictly police what is said online, a policy that critics say is being used to silence government detractors.
“This has been a trend, which is enforced with increasing frequency and severity for online media spaces,” said Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group. He added that the orders were being used to “cause censorship” under the guise of making social media companies more “accountable.”
The fight to control the gruesome images and online fury over a raging public health catastrophe is just one front in a broader conflict playing out globally. Governments across the world have been seeking to rein in the power of the largest tech companies, like Twitter and Facebook, whose policies have huge political impact far from their California headquarters. In the best of cases, it can be difficult to disentangle government efforts to tamp down misinformation from other motivations, like tilting online debate in one political party’s favor.
While the companies seek to hew to policies that they say are based on the principles of free speech, their responses to government power plays have been inconsistent and often based on business pragmatism. In Myanmar, Facebook cut business ties with military-linked accounts over violence against protesters. In China, Facebook does brisk business with state-backed media groups that have been busy denying the widespread internment of ethnic minorities, which the United States has labeled a genocide.
In India, the companies face a stark choice: follow laws and risk suppressing political debate, or ignore them and face harsh punishments, including prison time for local employees, in a potentially huge growth market.
Squabbles over online speech in India are growing common. The Indian government, controlled by Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has become increasingly aggressive at stifling dissent. It has arrested activists and journalists, and pressured media organizations to hew to its line. It has cut off mobile internet access in troubled areas. After a standoff with China, it blocked a number of apps owned by Chinese companies.
In February, Twitter relented in the face of government threats to arrest its employees, and blocked 500 accounts after the government accused them of making inflammatory remarks about Mr. Modi. Twitter declined, however, to remove a number of journalists’ and politicians’ accounts, pointing out that the orders to block them did not appear to be consistent with Indian law.
In a Sunday statement, India’s government said the posts it targeted “spread fake or misleading information” and created “panic about the Covid-19 situation in India by using unrelated, old and out of the context images or visuals.” It pointed to photos in several posts that it said were of bodies unrelated to the recent outbreak.
In an emailed statement, Twitter said that if content “is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of Twitter’s rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only,” adding that in that case it would notify users. Facebook did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
The removals did little to mute a broader chorus of online anger.
“If most citizens are using every single means they have to organize hospital beds, oxygen & logistic support for near & dear what exactly is the Government of India doing?” wrote Mahua Moitra, a politician and member of parliament from West Bengal.
Aftab Alam, a professor at the University of Delhi was more direct.
“Because you know it’s easier to take down tweets than it is to ensure oxygen supplies,” he wrote on Twitter.