Twitter labels some Indian politicians’ tweets about COVID-19 as manipulated media

India’s government has criticized Twitter for applying its “manipulated media” label to some Indian politicians’ tweets about COVID-19 efforts, and TechCrunch and Indian news media outlets reported Friday. The government has asked Twitter to remove the tags out of “fairness and equity,” saying the application of the labels affects the platform’s image as “neutral and unbiased.”

The government sent the notice to Twitter two days after it applied the “manipulated media” label to a tweet by Sambit Patra, of India’s ruling BJP party. Patra said in the tweet, which appears to have been deleted (it’s not clear whether Twitter removed it or if Patra deleted it himself), that opposition party Congress had used a “toolkit” in attempts to subvert the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The BJP party accuses the Congress party of creating the toolkit to damage Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Times of India explains, but the Congress party claims the version of the toolkit the BJP is spreading is a faked version of a research note about an unrelated project. Indian fact-checking organization Alt News found images of the so-called “COVID toolkit” that Patra and others had tweeted contained some falsified information.

According to Indian news site The News Minute, Patra’s tweet read: “Friends look at the #CongressToolKit in extending help to the needy during the Pandemic! More of a PR exercise with the help of Friendly Journalists & Influencers than a soulful endeavour. Read for yourselves the agenda of the Congress.”

Twitter declined to comment Friday. The platform introduced its manipulated media policy last February, which applies to media that is “significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated.” Video clips or images that have been altered to change their meaning or context could get a label under the rules, and false content presented as true or content found to be “likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm” could be removed entirely.

Several tweets by former US President Donald Trump, who has since been banned from Twitter, received the manipulated media label last year.

Twitter has grappled with local legal requirements in India, particularly with regard to content about the coronavirus pandemic. Late last month, the platform removed more than 50 tweets critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic there, at the government’s request. The censored accounts included a sitting member of Parliament and other prominent figures.

And during protests by farmers in India in February, Twitter permanently blocked more than 500 accounts and removed others from being visible within the country. At the time, the Indian government issued a notice of noncompliance to Twitter, which could have meant jail time for Twitter’s employees in India if the company had refused.

According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, India reported 259,551 new cases of COVID-19 and 4,209 new deaths on Friday.

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