Social media giants accused of ‘silencing’ Kashmir voices | Social Media News

A report by a Kashmiri diaspora group has accused social media giants Twitter, Facebook and Instagram of silencing Kashmiri voices in digital spaces by frequently suspending the accounts of artists, scholars and journalists based in and outside the disputed region, a decision called by experts as “reprehensible”.

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

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

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

Last year, the advocacy group’s report found that India topped the list of internet shutdowns globally among 129 countries, with 109 of the total 155 internet shutdowns taking place in the country.

Commenting on his 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 way to speak out in person. Social media has provided an outlet for them,” the spokesperson said, adding that “not only does the Indian government go after social media users from Kashmir to 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.”

‘No longer reprehensible’

Digital rights campaigners have also raised concerns about the “arbitrary removal of online content” by social media platforms.

Krishnesh Bapat, a lawyer and member of the 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 content of social media is removed”.

“The content is arbitrarily deleted and it is also arbitrarily restored,” Bapat said, adding, “it is very difficult to assess whether they [social media sites] do so at the request of someone else or themselves.

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

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

“Companies like Twitter and Facebook are platforms for people to express themselves and make their voices heard, not only with those in power, but also with each other,” said Seshu, who is based in Mumbai.

“If these social media companies succumb to government pressure to silence or fail to push back on takedown requests, they are doing a huge disservice to their users,” she said, adding that censorship “ also goes against the avowed law. principles of these companies to provide safe spaces for conversations”.

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

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

“Wherever possible, we notify users when we receive such requests. It is important to note that, unless prohibited from doing so, when we remove or withhold content in a particular country, Twitter will provide a copy of the request to the publicly available Lumen database. When content is withheld, it is only retained in the country making the removal request and remains viewable in all other jurisdictions,” he said.

“Limit Expression”

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

The document says: “Companies side with India’s suppression of Kashmir’s digital rights, including the government’s blocking of internet and telecommunications access in the region, as well as its militarization of the law and policy aimed at curbing the expression of Kashmir’s political aspirations in digital. space.”

During its six months of research, including surveys and interviews with people based in Kashmir and outside, the group found that Twitter, Facebook and Instagram censor and cripple their spaces for online expression.

In this photo from January 30, 2020, 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 large internet market of almost 700 million users, announced strict rules earlier this year to regulate social media content. [File: Dar Yasin/AP Photo]

The group demanded that social media companies meet their stated human rights obligations to people and be transparent about removing content.

“…user accounts have been deactivated, suspended and permanently deleted. Users reported that their account privileges were restricted or account content was removed. Users also say the platforms offered dishonest technical reasons for censoring their accounts,” the report said.

He said the majority of users in Kashmir felt the platforms were not addressing the censorship issues they were facing in an efficient and timely manner.

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

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

Twitter’s 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 use has become widespread in the region, social media has become an important mode of expression of opinion in the region claimed by India and Pakistan. However, they only control parts of the predominantly Muslim Himalayan territory.

The regional government has frequently ordered internet shutdowns on the grounds that it is being used to incite protests. In recent years, many users have been reserved, summoned and questioned about their content on social networks.

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

India, which has a large internet market of almost 700 million users, announced strict rules earlier this year to regulate social media content. Under the new rules, social media companies are legally required to remove posts and share information about the origin of content when requested by the government.

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

“Restrict the reach of social media”

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

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

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

“As of today, there is a sensitivity filter on my Twitter account for anything I post, even if it’s something quite mundane. I share my work on these platforms and in doing so, I trust them to be ethical in the way they handle it.

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

“Wherever possible, we notify users when we receive such requests. It is important to note that, unless prohibited from doing so, when we remove or withhold content in a particular country, Twitter will provide a copy of the request to the publicly available Lumen database. When content is withheld, it is only retained in the country making the removal request and remains viewable in all other jurisdictions,” he said.

Facebook and Instagram did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for a response until the article was published.