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The Silencing of Palestinian and Kashmiri Voices on Social Media

Social media platforms are helping to prevent Kashmiri and Palestinian anguish from reaching a global audience

Social media platforms are helping to prevent Kashmiri and Palestinian anguish from reaching a global audience, says CJ Werleman.

Kashmir and the Palestinian territories have much in common. Each are heavily occupied or blockaded by the armies of powerful states and are home to some of the most egregious human rights violations. An overwhelming majority of Kashmiri and Palestinians exist in what can only be described as open air prisons.

What the citizens and residents of Kashmir, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem also share is that they are subjected to a sustained and coordinated effort to ensure that their voices remain unheard in the international media.

When Israeli airstrikes bomb schools and hospitals in Gaza, we don’t hear from the Palestinians who’ve been pulled out from the rubble, bloody, shocked and wounded. Instead, we are presented with one non-Palestinian spokesperson, politician or lobbyist after another, each attempting to assuage our outrage with propaganda, such as “Israel has a right to defend itself”.

The same can be said for India’s human rights violations in Kashmir, or what is commonly described as the “most militarised place on earth” – a territory that has become even more so since New Delhi’s sudden move to revoke Article 370 of its Constitution in August, stripping Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status. Instead of the territory’s eight million Muslim voices, we hear only the words of Indian Government spokespeople or Government-friendly news outlets.

The idea that Twitter and Facebook are impartial platforms built on fairness and equality for all is patently absurd.

With that in mind, social media platforms level the playing field in allowing or providing an opportunity for victims of state repression and violence to put into words and images their suffering, grievance and plight. Tweets, Facebook posts and texts via data sharing applications such as WhatsApp allow the world access to information that hasn’t been censored, moderated or ignored by the editorial boards of corporate advertiser-dependent news corporations.

This is why anti-democratic and authoritarian governments go to great lengths to limit or ban their citizens’ access to platforms that allow the sharing of information so freely. They know better than anyone else that, without social media, the repressed remain invisible and unheard.

Kashmiris and Palestinians, however, are not victimised by illiberal or rogue states. They are oppressed by self-proclaimed secular democracies – countries that promote the virtues of free speech and welcome political dissent. 

So what happens to the voiceless when social media platforms privilege the respective governments of Israel and India over their repressed populations? It’s a question that leads to the darkest places of our collective imagination, to memories of genocide.

Last week, David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinions and Expression, wrote to Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive officer, expressing his concern “regarding account actions against Twitter users for posting or sharing Kashmir-related content”.

“According to information received, Twitter has withheld users’ tweets and accounts when they have participated in discussions concerning Kashmir on the platform,” wrote Kaye. “Affected users receive notifications that either inform them that ‘their account [or tweet] has been withheld in India in response to legal demand’ or that ‘their account [or tweet] has been withheld… based on local laws’.”

Kaye also cited a report published by Twitter which showed that India made 144 “removal requests” during a six-month period spanning July 2017 to December 2017. Based on the information he had received, Twitter “may have begun to accede to [Indian] Government demands for account and content removals since July 2017,” he said. “In recent years, India has expanded the scope of its censorship tools and efforts, at the expense of individual rights to freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association and other fundamental human rights.”

For several years, pro-Kashmir activists have complained about having their tweets deleted or accounts suspended by Twitter for criticising the Indian military’s widely reported human rights violations in the territory.

“My account is withheld and shadow-banned in India, which is illegal, and Twitter says it doesn’t do it, but it can’t explain why people don’t see my tweets or replies without searching,” Helene Sejlert, a Swedish-born human rights activist who has been speaking and writing on Kashmir for nearly two decades, told me. “It’s a systematic attempt to silence the growing awareness of the injustice committed against the Kashmiri people.”

With Kashmir now entering the fifth month of its communications blackout under an Indian military-imposed curfew and lockdown, Kashmiris are now also having their accounts with WhatsApp removed due to account inactivity.

“WhatsApp is used by some 400 million Indians, making the country the app’s largest market in the world,” observed Buzzfeed News. “WhatsApp groups dominate online conversations in India, and most Indians with access to a smartphone participate in at least a few. So when Kashmiri people began disappearing en masse from groups, a lot of people noticed.”

At the same time Kashmiri voices are being scrubbed from social media platforms as a result of repressive Indian Government actions, so too are accounts belonging to Palestinians because of actions taken by both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, with a new report showing that more than 100 Facebook accounts belonging to Palestinian journalists and activists were banned from sharing information and updates during the Israeli military attacks on Gaza last month.

With Facebook deeming vague or even commonly used Arabic terms or slogans to be “incitement to violence” – while at the same time ignoring Israeli accounts that openly call for “death to Arabs” – the social media platform has revealed a “political bias in favour of elevating the Israeli narrative while suppressing the Palestinian one,” observed +972 Magazine.

Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian writer and policy analyst at Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, claims that Facebook “cannot use ignorance as an excuse” and that “economic and political incentives” explain why social media companies comply with Israeli Government requests.

The profit motive is precisely what drives US-based social media platforms to favour the Indian Government over the Kashmiri people, and the state of Israel over the Palestinians. The idea that Twitter and Facebook are impartial platforms built on fairness and equality for all is patently absurd, given both are for-profit corporations which take corporate decisions driven almost entirely by the quest for ever-higher revenues while, at the same time, syncing themselves with US foreign policy objectives and priorities.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to argue that social media platforms are not complicit in preventing Kashmiri and Palestinian fears, anxiety and anguish from reaching a global audience – which is exactly how India and Israel want it.

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