Social media giants accused of ‘silencing’ Kashmir voices

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are taking down accounts of Kashmiris, a report by a Kashmiri diaspora group says.

Unique Identification Authority of India Warns against revealing Aadhaar Number on Facebook, Twitter 1st August 2018. (Photo by Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The Stand With Kashmir group found that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are censoring their online spaces of expression [Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

A report by a Kashmiri diaspora group has accused social media giants Twitter, Facebook and Instagram of silencing Kashmiri voices in the digital spaces through the frequent suspension of the accounts of artists, academics, and journalists based in and outside the disputed region, a move termed by experts as “reprehensible”.

A 30-page report by the Stand With Kashmir (SWK), titled “How social media corporations enable silence on Kashmir”, claims that since 2017, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have continually silenced Kashmir-related content.

In August 2019, when the Indian government scrapped the region’s semi-autonomous status, it imposed a sweeping communication and internet shutdown in the region. The shutdown continued for months – the longest internet suspension that took place in a democracy, according to Access Now, an international organisation that tracks internet access around the world.

Indian security personnel stand guard along the street of Srinagar on the second anniversary of stripping of Kashmir’s semi-autonomy [File: Abid Bhat/AFP]

Last year, the advocacy group’s report revealed that India topped the list of internet shutdowns in the world among 129 countries as 109 of total 155 internet shutdowns took place in the country.

About its report, the SWK spokesperson told Al Jazeera that “since August 2019, the level of censorship of Kashmiri voices in person but also on social media has only increased”.

“Kashmiris already have no avenues to express themselves in person. Social media provided an outlet for them,” the spokesperson said, adding, “not only is the Indian government going after Kashmiri social media users in Kashmir, but social media companies are also complicit in censoring Kashmiris by removing content, blocking important accounts that provide information, and restricting the reach of content. This is unacceptable.”

‘More reprehensible’

Digital rights activists have also expressed their concerns over “the arbitrary removal of the online content” by the social media platforms.

Krishnesh Bapat, a lawyer and fellow with Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group based in the capital, New Delhi, told Al Jazeera that “there is a general lack of transparency whenever the social media content is taken down”.

“The content is taken down arbitrarily and it is also restored arbitrarily,” Bapat said, adding, “it is very difficult to gauge if they [social media sites] are doing it on the behest of someone else or themselves.”

Geeta Seshu, co-founder of Free Speech Collective – a group that advocates for freedom of speech, told Al Jazeera, “Successive governments have censored and silenced voices of dissent in Kashmir for decades now but when social media companies do so too, it becomes all the more reprehensible.”

Successive governments have censored and silenced voices of dissent in Kashmir for decades now but when social media companies do so too, it becomes all the more reprehensible

“Companies like Twitter and Facebook are platforms for people to speak out and make themselves heard, not just to those in power but also to one another,” said Seshu, who is based in Mumbai.

“If these social media companies succumb to pressure from the government to silence or fail to push back on take-down requests, they do their users a huge disservice,” she said, adding that the censorship also “flies in the face of the avowed principles of these companies to provide safe spaces for conversations”.

In its statement to Al Jazeera regarding the allegations, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Twitter’s reporting processes are designed to be transparent and to enable real accountability.”

Twitter’s reporting processes are designed to be transparent and to enable real accountability

“Where possible, we provide user notice when we receive these requests. Importantly, unless we are prohibited from doing so, when we remove or withhold content in a certain country, Twitter will provide a copy of the request to the publicly available Lumen Database. When content is withheld, it is only withheld in the country making the removal demand and remains visible in all other jurisdictions,” it said.

‘Curb expression’

In SWK’s online poll with 32,000 followers about the experience of censorship, the report says, it received a response from 311 followers in which 62 percent of respondents said they had experienced some kind of censorship on the three platforms of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The document says: “Corporations are siding with India’s suppression of Kashmiri digital rights, including the government’s blockade of internet and telecommunications access in the region, as well as its weaponisation of the law and policy to curb the expression of Kashmiri political aspirations in the digital space.”

In its six months of research, including surveys and interviews with people based in and outside Kashmir, the group found that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are censoring and crippling their online spaces of expression.

In this Jan. 30, 2020, photo, a Kashmiri man browses the internet on his mobile phone outside a shop in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir. Six months after India stripped restive Kashmir of its semiIndia, which has a vast internet market of nearly 700 million users, announced strict rules to regulate content on social media earlier this year [File: Dar Yasin/AP Photo]

The group demanded that the social media firms must fulfil their stated human rights obligations to people and provide transparency about the removal of content.

“… users’ accounts were disabled, suspended and permanently deleted. Users reported their account privileges were restricted or account content was removed. Users also say platforms offered dishonest technical reasons for the censorship of their accounts,” the report said.

It said the majority of Kashmiri users felt the platforms did not redress the censorship issues they were facing in an effective and timely manner.

In October 2019, two months after the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status by the Indian authorities, when the region was under a crippling digital and military lockdown, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a global media watchdog, revealed in a report that “hundreds of thousands of tweets blocked in India since August 2017” had focused on Kashmir.

The report said the vast majority of the withheld accounts were from the group that referenced Kashmir, hosting more than 920,000 tweets between them.

The Twitter transparency report also revealed that more accounts were withheld in India in the second half of 2018 than in the rest of the world combined.

‘New rules’

In recent years, as internet usage became widespread in the region, social media became a prominent mode of expressing opinions in the region claimed by India and Pakistan. However, they control only parts of the Muslim-majority Himalayan territory.

The regional government has frequently ordered internet shutdowns on the ground it is being used to incite protests. In recent years, many users have been booked, summoned and questioned over their social media content.

Last year, two Kashmiri journalists, Masarat Zahra and Gowhar Geelani, were booked under the anti-terror law for their social media posts. The police claimed their posts were “prejudicial to the national integrity, sovereignty and security of India”.

India, which has a vast internet market of nearly 700 million users, announced strict rules to regulate content on social media earlier this year. Under the new rules, social media companies are under a legal obligation to remove posts and share information on the origin of content at the request of the government.

The rules, called the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, have sparked criticism from digital rights activists and raised concerns about the freedom of speech in the country.

‘Restricting social media reach’

Mir Suhail, a Kashmiri artist based in New York who is also quoted in the SWK report, has accused the social media corporations of restricting his social media reach.

“In early 2020, on an almost daily basis, I started getting notifications that my Instagram posts were being removed for hate speech or symbols,” Suhail, who has about 50,000 followers on Instagram, was quoted as saying in the report.

“The same thing was happening on Twitter. I was drawing on different subjects related to the experiences of marginalised communities in India about the experiences of Indian Muslims, the new citizenship laws and on Kashmir,” he said.

“To this day, there is a sensitivity filter on my Twitter account for each and everything I post, even if it is something entirely unremarkable. I share my work on these platforms and in doing so trust them to be ethical in how they handle it.”

In its statement to Al Jazeera regarding the allegations, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Twitter’s reporting processes are designed to be transparent and to enable real accountability.”

“Where possible, we provide user notice when we receive these requests. Importantly, unless we are prohibited from doing so, when we remove or withhold content in a certain country, Twitter will provide a copy of the request to the publicly available Lumen Database. When content is withheld, it is only withheld in the country making the removal demand and remains visible in all other jurisdictions,” it said.

Facebook and Instagram did not reply to Al Jazeera’s request for response until the time of publication of the article.

Source: Al Jazeera

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