India has blocked close to two dozen YouTube channels for “for spreading disinformation related to India’s national security, foreign relations and public order,” the country’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced on Tuesday. The 22 banned channels had racked up a combined 2.6 billion views between them.
The targets are no longer visible to anyone browsing the internet with an Indian IP address. They included four channels based out of Pakistan that promoted “certain anti-India content” in a “coordinated” fashion using a handful of Twitter and Facebook accounts, the Ministry said. The remainder originated from India and were accused of posting a “significant amount” of misinformation regarding Ukraine with the suspected aim of “jeopardizing India’s foreign relations with other countries.”
If the Ministry’s to be believed, the channels used tactics geared towards maximum virality and minimum authenticity to juice their views. These channels allegedly impersonated major South Asian networks — pictures of popular news anchors, logos of different television news orgs, and “false thumbnails” — all in the name of fleecing viewers and convincing them that the videos were authentic. Titles and thumbnails were changed “frequently,” the Ministry went on, “to increase the virality of content on social media.”
These channels are the latest targets of the country’s sweeping social media reforms passed into law early last year, which mandated that any platforms operating in the country comply with orders to take down content the government deems “unlawful.” YouTube alone has had 78 news channels taken down for promoting content that was deemed a risk to “national security, sovereignty and integrity of India,” and public order since the laws passed, the Ministry said.
While most of us can agree that faking thumbnails or flipping video titles isn’t great, there’s still the open question of what, exactly, these videos were espousing that put them in the Ministry’s line of fire in the first place. We’ve already seen the Indian government strong-arm Facebook and Twitter into pulling down posts that criticised the country’s response to the mounting coronavirus pandemic that left hundreds of thousands dead and crematoria so full that chimneys melted. The Indian government also used this new power to wipe critiques of the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, off these platforms. And while Twitter, in particular, pushed back against the new rules from the start, the social network quickly fell into line when its India-based workers were threatened with jail time.
The new YouTube crackdown is unlikely to be the last. Thankfully, the Ministry’s plan to ban users from sneaking illicit content using a VPN hasn’t gone through. Yet.