TECH

Abandoning Nuance, Facebook Is Deeming Posts On Kashmir 'Terror Content'

It's Complicated.

31/07/2016 11:03 AM IST | Updated 31/07/2016 11:34 AM IST
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Adnan Abidi / Reuters
A woman holds a placard as she attends a protest against what they say are the recent killings of Kashmiri civilians, in New Delhi, India, July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Earlier this week, when Mohamad Junaid reached Delhi after spending two weeks in his hometown in Kashmir, he found his Facebook account suspended. The anthropologist, currently working at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, was mildly puzzled. He is not very active on Facebook and the last post he shared was an essay he had written for raiot.in.

It didn't take Junaid long to figure out what led to his suspension from Facebook. The article he had written for the alternative media site was on Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani.

"It was not an article supporting Burhan Wani's activities. It was not an emotional, personal post or something. It was an academic article on the politics of images at play and the depiction of Burhan Wani," says Junaid.

Most such posts, however, fall under Facebook's broad definition of 'terror content' at present. In an email sent to HuffPost India, a Facebook spokesperson explained that most of these posts, including Junaid's, violated their community standards for 'terrorism content' and were hence pulled down.

"Our Community Standards prohibit content that praises or supports terrorists, terrorist organizations or terrorism, and we remove it as soon as we're made aware of it. We welcome discussion on these subjects but any terrorist content has to be clearly put in a context which condemns these organisations or their violent activities," a Facebook spokesperson told us.

Not only does Junaid find Facebook's response unconvincing, he also finds the idea of terming posts critical of the government and Army atrocities as 'terror posts', sinister.

Not only does Junaid find Facebook's response unconvincing, he also finds the idea of terming posts critical of the government and Army atrocities as 'terror posts', sinister.

"How can an article which tries to explore the root of the problem possibly incite violence?" he asks.

He soon realised that this blocking and suspension of social media accounts of Kashmiris and others who have tried to take a less jingoistic view of the Kashmir issue was not a one-off thing. "There seemed to be a larger systematic process in place to gag counter-views on Facebook," Junaid contended.

He had enough reason to believe that. A Facebook page called 'Kashmir Solidarity Network', which he and a few others had started to share stories, experiences and commentaries on Kashmir, had also been suspended. The accounts of all the administrators of the page had been suspended too.

Tarun Bhartiya, the editor of raiot.in, has also found his account blocked a couple of times. Once, when he had shared a post on the Manipuri women protesting against the Army and AFSPA, and the second time when he shared a viral photo album which had morphed images of celebs with pellet wounds on their faces. He almost sounded amused at the futility of a campaign to black out ground reports from Kashmir. "It is a fact that thousands of people turned up for Burhan Wani's funeral. Were all of them brainwashed? Also, by taking a post down or a photo down, you cannot change what's actually unravelling in reality, right?" he asked.

Bhartiya pointed out that even if it is privately-owned, Facebook, after all was meant to be a public platform. And a public platform should also ideally lend itself to debate and discussion.

"That's what a free society stands for. You may disagree with my opinion, but you cannot try to gag it," he contended.

As an example of the baffling nature of Facebook's censorship, Bhartiya talked about the beef recipe which was posted on the raoit.in's Facebook page. The admins were soon told that the story wasn't opening and it couldn't be shared. It was a clever political statement but hardly anything that could be termed as disruptive.

Parrey suspects that Facebook's actions are covertly in support of the Indian government's efforts to muzzle counter-narratives.

Arif Ayaz Parrey, a Delhi-based writer/editor who hails from Anantnag also called by its old name Islamabad by locals in Kashmir, found his account blocked twice.

Parrey suspects that Facebook's actions are covertly in support of the Indian government's efforts to muzzle counter-narratives. "In the last few years, ordinary Kashmiris and our friends in Pakistan, India and other countries have been doing citizen-reporting from Kashmir and analysis of events. This has become a serious challenge to Indian government's official version on Kashmir," Parrey added.

A sentiment echoed by several people who bore the brunt of the arbitrary implementation of Facebook's 'terrorism content' vigil.

Junaid pointed out how the knowledge of Facebook suspending his account puts him at risk. The ban, in effect, almost works as an accusation that the users have supported divisive, dangerous ideas like militancy. "After the news of the suspension of my account went out, I was told how some people have been discussing that I support banned groups in Kashmir," he said.

Fahad Shah, a freelance journalist who divides his time between Kashmir and Delhi, said that as per his own observation, this time, the banning and suspension of Facebook accounts was dogged and relentless. On learning that Facebook has been banning all posts under the sweeping accusation of them being 'terrorism content', Shah said, "I think by calling it terror content Facebook proves they do not believe in freedom of expression or are selective in their policies. People of Kashmir are sharing about their home, state brutality and political exploitation. If state forces are blinding children and these pictures are shared on FB and it invites suspension of account, I wonder what definition does FB have for terror."

It was not just Kashmiris trying to provide a counter-view who found themselves in the receiving end of Facebook's suspension and blocking business.

It was not just Kashmiris trying to provide a counter-view who found themselves in the receiving end of Facebook's suspension and blocking business.

Tamoghno Halder, a doctoral student in UC Davis, California, had his account blocked several times in the course of the past month. And it has been over 30 days that his account has now been suspended by Facebook. One of the posts that caused his profile to get suspended was an image that had the Indian flag and a Nazi symbol superimposed on the image of a Kashmiri child's face—his face ridden with pellets supposedly fired by the Indian Army. Another was a photograph, taken by a reputed news agency reporting on Kashmir. The picture captured a Kashmiri police personnel standing in front of a wall, which had the the words 'Indian dogs go back', spray painted on it.

Explaining why he shared the image, Halder said, "It was a graffiti from the walls of Kashmir, and the hatred of Kashmiris for both India and Pakistan is documented in its walls, it is important to share what they think about Indian state, and not what we think... We can only listen to them, and their rage."

Soumo Mondol, the Kolkata general secretary of a students political outfit, found his account permanently suspended. Mondol said that, as Kashmir raged, he had posted three status updates. One of the posts said, "Not India, not Pakistan, not America. Only Kashmiris have to the right to decide what they want." According to Mondol, it invited a plethora of threats from those he calls 'Hindutva elements'. In response to that, he said, he wrote a post mocking the people who were threatening him with violence. He also suggested that the Army should be withdrawn from Kashmir and a referendum be held in the state. Within an hour of posting that update, his account was blocked.

Like everyone else, Mondol too, is confused how his posts violated Facebook's community standards. Tarun echoes his sentiments. "Who is interpreting Facebook's 'community standards'. Who reviews it? Who examines the bias? Who are the people deciding what is problematic and what isn't? Certainly, people are deciding this, an algorithm isn't," he said.

Facebook's unwillingness to comprehensively explain the process behind the banning and suspension has also led people to accuse it of double standards. "They are pulling down academic posts. What about those thousands of posts by so-called nationalists demanding genocide of protesting Kashmiris. Posts saying the Indian Army should be allowed to brutalise all Kashmiris? Post advocating murder and killings? How come Facebook is not pulling them down?" asked Junaid.

This had made people believe, like Tarun said, that the censoring is 'ideologically and politically motivated'.

"Do we even know if it is acting by itself, or at someone's behest?" he asked.

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