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Facebook Temporarily Blocked Posts Calling for Resignation of Indian Prime Minister

India is experiencing a devastating wave of the coronavirus, with more than 357,000 cases reported on Wednesday alone.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses media outside the President House on May 25, 2019 in New Delhi. | Getty Images
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses media outside the President House on May 25, 2019 in New Delhi. | Getty Images

Facebook said it blocked posts on Wednesday containing #ResignModi, referring to India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, “by mistake.” The move has nonetheless drawn substantial criticism, given the platform’s history of being lax with abusive and violent content under the pretense of protecting free speech.

“We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone tweeted

Posts containing the hashtag were blocked for approximately three hours, according to BuzzFeed News, which reported that people in the U.S., India, Canada, and England were affected. 

During the time #ResignModi was blocked, screenshots show affected users who searched for the hashtag on Facebook saw the message: “Posts with #ResignModi are temporarily hidden here. Some content in those posts goes against our Community Standards.”

The temporary ban prompted reporters to question why posts containing #ResignModi were problematic and whether human or automated error led to the “mistake.” Some have also pointed to the apparently cozy relationship between Modi’s government and a Facebook India policy executive, who quit amid controversy over past social media posts.  NowThis reached out to Facebook for clarification on why it blocked the posts.

“Facebook won’t offer any further explanation other than that some of the content associated with the #ResignModi hashtag led to it mistakenly being blocked,” NBC News tech editor Olivia Solon tweeted on April 29. “But how? Was it an automated process? Or a manual one? If the latter, who was responsible?”

Harvard Law School’s evelyn douek, who studies the regulation of online speech and content moderation, questioned, “[what the hell] does ‘content associated’ mean?” 

douek told BuzzFeed News: “In the context of a highly politicized environment and an ongoing emergency, it’s very concerning that Facebook isn’t being more transparent about this and is not commenting.”

Prime Minister Modi declared victory over the coronavirus in January, but by March, a devastating surge of the virus took hold in India. The country is breaking case and death records daily and ranks second globally behind the U.S. for most COVID-19 cases. On Wednesday, India reported more than 357,000 new daily cases and 3,300 coronavirus-related deaths, and public health experts believe the actual number of deaths far exceeds official reports. Experts attribute the worsening surge to a combination of factors, including a more complacent public, the presence of more infectious variants, and large religious and political gatherings.

At the behest of the Indian government, Twitter blocked more than 50 tweets that were critical of India’s response to the pandemic last week, according to news first reported by Indian tech publication Medianama. The tweets were blocked only in India.

“When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service,” reads a Twitter statement sent to Medianama. “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.”

On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department urged citizens to return from India in the wake of the surge in cases.

Earlier this week, the Biden administration announced it would “immediately” send raw material to create vaccines to India, in addition to medical supplies, like therapeutics, testing kits, ventilators, and PPE. The White House later specified that it would send enough vaccine-manufacturing supplies to “allow India to make over 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine.” Also on Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the U.S. would share its stockpile of AstraZeneca vaccine doses, which have not been federally approved for use in the U.S., with other countries “during the next few months” after the FDA reviews them “for product quality.” The White House did not specify which countries will receive the up to 60 million doses.

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