The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting announced Tuesday that the government had blocked 22 YouTube channels, 3 Twitter accounts, and one Facebook account in India, citing “disinformation” and national security concerns. “The blocked YouTube channels had a cumulative viewership of over 260 crore (sic), and were used to spread fake news, and coordinated disinformation over social media on subjects sensitive from the perspective of national security, India’s foreign relations, and public order,” the government said in a press release.
The blocking was done through the Information Technology (Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. “It was observed that a significant amount of false content published by these Indian YouTube-based channels related to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, and aimed at jeopardizing India’s foreign relations with other countries,” the government said.
Example screenshots posted by the government paint an absurd picture of one Indian channel, which claimed variously that India had approved attacks on Palestine, that it had conducted a nuclear test, or that it had killed 800 American soldiers in an attack. The other channels blocked appeared to be fringe Pakistani media outfits.
Since the IT Rules were notified in 2021, the government has mostly publicly announced their use when foreign actors are involved. The Rules have been criticized for increasing the government’s control over digital media, and they are under challenge in the courts.
The government’s track record in impartially identifying fake news has been strained. For instance, it has tagged a report by The Caravan describing government ‘inactivity’ in the run up to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as misinformation. It has also reportedly used disputed government statistics to refute stories, raising credibility issues for what it can call disinformation.
The IT Rules require social media companies and online news publications to register with the government and comply with any takedown notices which are issued to them under it. While there is a set of guidelines for complaining against content by users, the government can also order platforms to take content down directly, a process that has less oversight. Under the rules, firms are required to take down specified content within 24 hours, and provide complete ‘redressal’ in 15 days. All social media platforms, including YouTube and Twitter have agreed to comply with the rules.