India tells social media firms to remove ′Indian variant′ content | News | DW | 22.05.2021

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India tells social media firms to remove 'Indian variant' content

The Indian government has slammed the posts as "completely false," with officials concerned that the term "Indian variant" could hurt the country's reputation.

A COVID-19 patient breathes with the help of oxygen in Ghaziabad, India

India is currently grappling with a deadly wave of new COVID cases

India's Information Technology Ministry issued an order on Friday, calling on social media giants to remove hundreds of thousands of posts referencing the "Indian variant" of the coronavirus.

A variant identified as B.1.617 was first detected in India last year, and wasclassed as a variant "of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) last week.

It's the latest push by the Indian government to remove content from social media amid criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's handling of the devastating spike in cases.

What did the Indian government say?

In a letter seen by news agencies AFP and Reuters, the IT ministry told social media companies "remove all the content" referencing an "Indian variant."

"It has come to our knowledge that a false statement is being circulated online which implies that an 'Indian variant' of coronavirus is spreading across the countries. This is completely FALSE," the letter reads.

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COVID-19: Indian experts, advisers blame government

The letter, which was not made public, went on to argue that the WHO classification does not refer to an "Indian variant," but rather by its scientific name, B.1.617 — which is a practice the WHO has followed for other known variants as well.

The ministry went on to argue that its request to remove the posts fell under efforts to curb "false news and misinformation" during the pandemic.

One senior government official, who was not named, told Reuters that the letter to social media companies was meant to send a signal that posts referencing the "Indian variant" damage the country's image.

What are officials calling the variants?

While the WHO and many health experts reference the coronavirus variants by their scientific names to avoid contributing to a stigma — many doctors, government officials and other experts reference the variants by the countries where they were first identified.

This includes more contagious variants that were initially detected in the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India.

Members of the Indian government also regularly used the term "UK variant" to describe the B.1.1.7 variant when it began spreading in India.

Watch video 03:07

UK: Indian virus variant spreading rapidly

Modi administration under fire

In recent months, the Indian government has increasingly pushed social media to take down posts that could be seen as critical of Modi's right-wing government.

In April, the government ordered Facebook and Twitter to remove posts criticizing Modi's handling of the recent, devastating surge in coronavirus cases and deaths.  

The government also issued new regulations for social media companies in February in the midst of months-long protests by farmers.

India is grappling with one of the world's worst outbreaks of the virus — reporting record numbers of new infections and fatalities. 

The South Asian country recorded 257,000 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, and over 4,000 new deaths. Nearly half of India's total pandemic deaths have been logged since late March.

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Rural India sees COVID cases and deaths going unrecorded

rs/mm (AFP, Reuters)

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