US-based non-profit Stand With Kashmir's new report highlights the complicity of social media platforms in digitally censoring Kashmiris since 2017.
Social media giants are complicit in the “erasure of Kashmiri digital rights and the ongoing digital blackout of Kashmir,” according to a new report by rights group Stand With Kashmir (SWK).
Since 2017, tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have been accused of continually silencing Kashmiris online by removing content and suspending accounts. According to the SWK report, the Big Tech has engaged in “algorithmic manipulation of content critical of India’s military occupation and settler colonialism in the region”.
While the advent of social media has transformed the realm of political activism in Indian-administered Kashmir, freedom of speech and expression of Kashmiris both inside Kashmir and outside Kashmir have been routinely suppressed, the report added.
“Facebook and Twitter have continually sided with the Indian authorities’ weaponization of law and policy to curb Kashmir-related reportage and activism in the digital space,” SWK wrote.
The non-profit says that it used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to carry out its study, including polls, a detailed survey, and interviews of prominent Kashmiri social media influencers.
An online poll of SWK’s 32,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram was conducted, where users were asked which platforms they experienced censorship on.
Of the 311 responses, 62 percent said they experienced censorship of some kind on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In another Instagram poll where 140 responses were logged, 19 percent said they experienced censorship on Twitter, 25 percent did on Facebook, and 44 percent on Instagram.
Based on those methods, SWK was able to draw out an in-depth understanding of the impacts of censorship; the potential relationship of the Indian state to the instance of censorship; and recommendations for platforms to re-establish trust with Kashmiris.
Quelling digital dissent
Kashmiri users have been censored in various ways, from having their accounts disabled, suspended, and permanently deleted.
Users said social media platforms offered “dishonest technical reasons” for censorship of their accounts, and often did not redress censorship issues they were facing in a timely manner.
The report highlighted how the censorship experienced by Kashmiri users impacted their “trust in the political neutrality” of the platforms.
In 2018, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of expression and opinion wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about the company’s decision to censor Kashmiri-related content and profiles as indicative of accession to “government demands for content and account removals.”
In one instance, documents leaked to the New York Times by Facebook employees revealed that Facebook monitors political speech globally. In an overt government-friendly strategy, Facebook instructs moderators to censor the phrase “Free Kashmir” and deem content that calls for a liberated Kashmir illegal in India.
Additionally, in a leaked internal review on the rise of online censorship, Google employees noted how Facebook and Twitter “were implicated in the censorship of clashes between rebels and Indian authorities in Kashmir…highlighting the platform’s complicity with government censorship.”
Digital repression reached a new high after New Delhi abrogated Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status on August 5, 2019, as Kashmiris were put completely off the grid with a communications blockade – with the Internet, mobile phone, and even landline connectivity barred.
Eventually, communications were restored, but with only 2G internet, which was so weak that Kashmiris were barely able to attend online classes during the pandemic. Fears of digital surveillance have also led to increased online self-censorship.
Kashmiri model goes national
Meanwhile, the model of digitally gagging Kashmiris has now proliferated, with chilling consequences for all Indian users online.
In July 2020, the Indian state formalised a set of policies long used to suppress journalists and publishers in Kashmir in a policy guidance called MediaPolicy-2020. The guidance gives government officials the power to determine whether content entails “unethical or anti-national activities,” and take legal action if necessary.
In a repudiation of the principles of net neutrality, the federal government can now choose to hold social media companies liable for content circulated that is deemed objectionable within 36 hours of obtaining notification.
During a devastating second Covid-19 wave, a number of Indian social media users – not just Kashmiris – and advocacy groups also endured escalating attacks, with social media firms taking action on posts deemed critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic, often at the request of New Delhi.
In its latest Transparency Report, Twitter said the Indian government was the second-largest source of account information requests – 21 percent of global requests – and the fifth-largest source of account removal requests, which increased by 254 percent over the latest reporting period.
The SWK report highlighted various strategies for social media corporations to tackle ongoing issues of censorship.
First, it recommended all content removed and accounts suspended should be immediately reinstated, as it violates international norms of free expression.
Second, it called for a human rights impact assessment of the situation in Kashmir and the history of telecom blockades. SWK believes India is occupying Kashmir with its military might.
It additionally called for an investigation into reports of “IT cells” that are deployed to create disinformation and suppress marginalised voices in the digital space.
Hiring fact-checkers; suspending the use of AI mechanisms for reviewing Kashmir-related content; making publicly available detailed information on content or removal requests by the government, were some of the other recommendations.
Also mentioned was the need to increase investment in Hindi-language content moderation and to create a database of hate speech and Islamophobic terminology that harms Kashmiris and others in India.