Is Twitter aiding India’s quest to silence Kashmiris?

The spectre of an internet clampdown has once again reared its ugly head. This time though, the perceived cause is the social media companies — the digital gatekeepers who rally behind the idea of free expression for all.

In the past few weeks, several users have complained that their accounts or tweets were suspended or withheld for posting about events in India-held Kashmir. The Pakistan government specified about 200 accounts that were suspended to Twitter, accusing the platform of aiding India’s quest to silence Kashmiris and their supporters.

Among the many people whose accounts have been reported recently, President Arif Alvi also received a notice from Twitter alerting him on a complaint it received requesting for removal of his tweet on Kashmir. Although Twitter did not find the tweet to be in violation of its rules and took no action, its content moderation policy [or the lack of it] has come under intense scrutiny.

On its part, Twitter has repeatedly — in correspondence with Dawn — maintained that it enforces policies judiciously and ensures impartiality of all users, regardless of their political beliefs and country of origin.

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Users have said their accounts have been suspended or withheld for posting about events in valley

However, it does not comment on the reasons that allowed certain accounts or tweets being censured.

To fully understand the extent of Twitter’s opaque moderation policies, let us review how its content withheld tool has been used in Kashmir’s context.

The content withheld tool allows governments or authorised entities to request Twitter to censor content on a country by country basis. The Pakistan government, too, has often used the tool against journalists and activists, who have in the past year shared similar legal notices from the platform.

Twitter says it provides transparency through a combination of efforts. This includes providing direct notice of removal requests to affected users (when not otherwise prohibited), the use of visual indicators within the service (an alert showing withheld content), and by publishing the underlying legal demands (e.g court orders) on Lumen, which serves as a public repository for content removal requests.

A list of legal requests from the Indian Ministry of Electronic and Information Technology on Lumen suggests that all of the censured accounts belonged to Kashmiri users or those posting in support of the cause. The Indian government cited Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 against tweets it said were in violation of its law. The reported content was then withheld from access in India.

The more problematic aspect is that the database does not include all legal requests sent by India. Since Aug 14, according to the database, India sent six legal requests. Evidence shared by users of the platform with Dawn indicates otherwise. One such example is the legal request sent to journalist Arshad Sharif, which is not uploaded on the database.

Twitter’s inconsistency and inaction on its own rules thus not only creates a level of mistrust and lack of confidence in the company’s reporting process, it also sends the message that Twitter does not take the region’s politics seriously.

Another issue allowing the Indian government to control access to information is the lack of human moderators at Twitter that enable platform manipulation.

In the past weeks, many Pakistani celebrity accounts have been suspended for ‘impersonation’.

A Dawn analysis revealed that a network of accounts — ETF Associates and BMJ Youth to name a few — were involved in mass reporting Pakistani accounts leading to their suspension.

The ETF_RW account was created in June 2016 and had reported over 339 accounts in 2019 alone. One of the accounts it got suspended had a whopping following of 90,000 users. The BMJ Youth account was created rather recently (January 2019) but still managed to report prominent accounts, such as the handle of focal person to the Punjab chief minister on digital media, Mashwani Azhar who is followed by over 33,000 people.

The two accounts have now been suspended by Twitter, but more similar networks propped up soon after.

Users posting about Kashmir have also complained that they have been ‘shadow banned’ by Twitter. Shadow banning, as the platform defines it, is deliberately making someone’s content undiscoverable to everyone except the person who posted it, unbeknownst to the original poster.

Others, particularly Indian users, have also reported that their tweets in support of Kashmir are marked as “sensitive content” on the platform which means it will not be visible unless someone clicks on it.

Twitter has refuted the accusations outright. “We do not shadow ban. And we certainly don’t shadow ban based on political viewpoints or ideology,” it claims. It does not elaborate further.

And that’s where the problem lies; the platform when confronted with questions of how it decides what permissible speech is online provides brief policy statements, rather than taking the opportunity to provide their users with more details about how they control the content.

While Twitter has its share of problems, to blame its opaque moderation for non-compliance to Pakistan would not be entirely correct.

To hold Twitter accountable is a process beyond emotive, reactionary statements. With over 34 million users, a local presence and a revenue making industry that is India, Pakistan (with nearly a million users) must consider whether digital collaboration is among its long-term priorities.

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2019