India Asks Social Media Platforms to Take Down References to ‘Indian Variant’ of Coronavirus: Report

India Asks Social Media Platforms to Take Down References to ‘Indian Variant’ of Coronavirus: Report
A health worker wearing a personal protective equipment kit walks inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a covid-19 coronavirus ward in India's capital city. (Photo: Money Sharma, Getty Images)

India’s information technology ministry has reportedly sent notices to social media platforms asking them to censor content that refers to an “Indian variant” of the coronavirus.

In a letter issued on Friday and reviewed by Reuters, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked several social media companies to “remove all the content” that names or implies an “Indian variant” of the coronavirus.

It was not immediately clear which social media outlets received the notice, but India’s government recently ordered Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to censor posts criticising the administration’s pandemic response. Twitter and Facebook did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s questions about whether they received such a notice, but we’ll be sure to update this blog should we hear back.

On Friday, India’s IT ministry said the phrase “Indian variant” is “completely FALSE” when it contacted the social media companies. 

“There is no such variant of Covid-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has not associated the term ‘Indian Variant’ with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in any of its reports,” stated the letter according to Reuters.

A senior government source told the outlet the notice was intended to send a “loud and clear” message that any content referring to an “Indian variant” is spreading misinformation and undermining the country’s public image.

The variant in question was first detected in India last year and is believed to be behind the latest surge in covid-19 cases in south Asia, a wave so devastating that one Indian health official likened it to a “tsunami.” Earlier this month, WHO classified this variant as one of global concern, pointing to preliminary evidence indicating that it is more contagious than other strains of the virus.

However, the agency’s guidance for naming new infectious diseases does discourage using geographic locations, people’s names, or terms that “could incite undue fear,” among other examples, to avoid stoking harmful stereotypes or stigmatization. So it’s true that the WHO has never sanctioned the name “Indian variant” for this new strain.

That being said, around the same time this colloquialism began to spread, the Indian government was already facing widespread condemnation over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities have also faced scrutiny for their attempts to censor online criticism of the administration’s perceived lack of planning for the ongoing second wave of infections.

India has reported more than 26 million coronavirus cases, the second-highest tally in the world, and nearly 300,000 deaths to date. In recent days, it’s been reporting roughly 250,000 new infections and 4,000 deaths every day, according to Reuters.