Is Kashmir issue being censored?

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There is no denying the fact that social media has been instrumental in educating people about politics and world affairs for a decade now. However, little do the users know that social media platforms can be extremely biased and selective about the kind of knowledge they circulate on the internet. In this age of social media and advanced internet connections, most of the population, especially youth gets their news from social media. Unfortunately, the seemingly political bias of big social media companies has deprived half of the world’s population of marginalized voices. Suspension of hundreds of Pakistani user accounts on Twitter is just another example of political bias on social media.

On August 5, when India revoked Article 370 and 35A and sieged Kashmir, cutting off the phone networks and internet, many Pakistanis took to Twitter to raise their voices against brutality on Kashmiri Muslims. Contradictory to its slogan of freedom of speech, Twitter suspended 200 Pakistani accounts that tweeted about Kashmir issue. This includes the accounts of prominent political figures such as Waqas Amjad of Housing Ministry, focal person to the Punjab Chief Minister, Mashwani Azhar, and even President Arif Alvi received a notice from Twitter to remove his tweet because of a complaint it received from other users. Twitter’s blunt reaction to social media activism makes one (Jahangir, Is Twitter aiding India’s quest to silence Kashmiris?, 2019) question the company’s reporting process.

The lack of transparency on the part of the social media company has always been a major point of concern for its users. Ever since the 1990s tech boom, major tech companies have shocked users with a series of privacy-violating scandals. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is just one of the many that reflects the impetuous attitude of social media towards its users. Upon digging deep into the issue of suspension of Pakistani accounts, an English Pakistani newspaper, Dawn found out that those accounts were reported to be suspended based on the content they shared—mainly tweets in support of Kashmir.

Twitter has a content withheld tool, which allows government entities to request Twitter to censor tweets. Although strict, Twitter does allow some level of transparency by publishing legal demands on Lumen, which serves as a repository for content removal requests. The database showed a list of accounts which the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology requested to censor for posting content in support of Kashmir. The bigger problem here lies in the level of secrecy Twitter maintains while dealing with such allegations. The database does not show all the legal requests sent by India. According to the database, India only sent six requests since August 14 while evidence shared by Pakistani users contradicts the data on Lumen.

Twitter’s inaction in its own rule reflects its political bias and its alliance with India in silencing Kashmiris. There is a huge dichotomy that exists between the west and the east on social media. It is mostly the West that dominates the global news feed while news from the east is relegated to the background. This is the prime reason behind the silence on news on Kashmir, and Palestine for that matter. Any coverage on Palestine over social media has been because celebrities like Morgan Freeman and Rihanna have tweeted their support for Gaza. While many of them did face public backlash, none of these celebrities had their accounts suspended. Then why the censorship of content on Kashmir from Pakistani accounts?

On Facebook, 928 feeds come from only five countries: the United States, Canada, India, UK, and Australia, neglecting English outlets from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This creates an uneven mixture of news on RSS feeds. The systemic biases on the part of Facebook only show the viewers the Western interpretation of the world. If the outlets from the five countries mentioned above are not covering a topic, then the possibility of it being seen is little to none.

India’s status concerning power hierarchy in social media explains Twitter’s suspension of 200 accounts. Although, when the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) confronted Twitter’s regional officer about its political bias, Twitter declined those allegations without specifying the reason behind the suspension of Pakistani accounts. PTA has lodged an official complaint against Twitter, and the government is working on a long-term solution through National IT Board to avoid such discrimination in the future. However, whether any legal efforts would stop social media companies from practicing political bias remains a question that needs to be investigated.

Despite their promises on the commitment to free speech, both Twitter and Facebook in many instances have violated their own rules. For example, Facebook did not activate its Safety Check for people in Iraq when in 2016, a bomb blast had killed more than 90 people and injured 87, but it did for people in Paris following the 2015 attack with a similar number of casualties. Similarly, there have been no Safety Checks for Kashmir since the curfew started over a month ago. Is the loss of life in Kashmir less significant to global social media than that in Europe? When faced with backlash about its political bias on this particular issue, Facebook responded by distinguishing Paris, a western country, as a country where terror attacks are not that frequent while in eastern countries these terror attacks happen in more “distressing frequency”.

Even the coup in Egypt in 2013 was widely covered (and supported) over Twitter. Why is it that corrupt leaders and military members are not being called out on the torture and mistreatment of Kashmiris? If the conflict in Kashmir is one that has been recognized by the United Nations on multiple occasions, then why is Twitter entertaining account suspension requests from the Indian government? These actions contradict their vision of allowing complete freedom of speech across the platform, when bigoted and racist leaders like US President Donald Trump are allowed free reign over what they can tweet about but leaders like President Arif Alvi are warned against speaking out about matters of national interest, like Kashmir on Twitter.

While the selective coverage of news and the algorithms give power to certain countries to run a discourse on social media, it takes from many the liberty to express themselves without being discriminated. The biggest problem in the case of Facebook and Twitter is their lack of transparency, which leads many to believe all content on the feed represents the general view. Censorship and political bias on social media are highly problematic, global institutions such as U.N could draft policies that regulate social media platforms to maintain world peace and equality.

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Hatoon Gul is a Turbat based YES alumna studying Social Development and Policy at Habib University, Karachi.

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