As more farmers from across India join what’s considered the largest protest in human history, organizers of social media solidarity movements in British Columbia and around the world claim online censorship is hindering their effort.
“In the beginning, it was fine, you could tell the posts we were making were reaching a lot of people and it was trending and then suddenly when it went really mainstream and it really started to trend, you could see these hashtags started to get blocked,” Canadian activist Nanki Kaur told Global News.
Kaur, who lives on an Ontario farm with her parents, got in touch with the World Sikh Organization (WSO) about the issue.
The group has been in communication with Facebook since June about the phenomenon known as “shadow banning.”
It means hashtags are flooded with pornographic material, which is then flagged and restricted.
“We are seeing hashtags being frozen and we are seeing accounts that are posting about these issues, using those hashtags, either being locked or not having their content visible to other users,” WSO Legal Counsel Balpreet Singh said.
“This is a pattern we’ve seen over and over again, that anything that’s critical of India is being taken down and being flagged as violations of Indian law.”
In an email to the WSO dated Sept. 14, Twitter Legal said, in part, “We are writing to inform you that Twitter has received a request from Indian Law Enforcement regarding your Twitter account, @WorldSikhOrg, that claims the following content violates the law(s) of India.”
Singh says shadow bans have been occurring during key moments in the movement including when protesting farmers arrived in the nation’s capital around Nov. 28.
“There’s been ‘satellite jammers’ installed around the protest areas so that people can’t use the internet,” he said.
“The ability of the diaspora to be able to share these stories is critical to the success of this and to have the farmers’ voices heard.”
The WSO says it has urged Facebook to implement a way to make appeals through a transparent process where content is believed to be restricted.
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said content that violates company policies was restricted on hashtags like #Sikh and #TikTok, which were “subject to an influx of pornographic material,” adding, “understanding the importance of the hashtag to Sikhs worldwide, we worked quickly to remove this material and restore the hashtag.”
But the WSO says the company has failed to find effective solutions to a recurring problem.
“When Facebook appears to be colluding with the censorship of these voices, it’s a big problem and it’s not in accordance with Canadian values and just generally with human rights,” Singh said.
Social media expert Jesse Miller says there was a significant increase in the use of Instagram in the last 18 months, correlating with the ban of TikTok in India about 14 months ago.
“Interestingly enough, Instagram is owned by Facebook and so is Whatsapp and so shadow banning is not necessarily if that platform itself is shadow banning content, but whether or not we have outside actors who are targeting hashtags or users themselves,” Miller said.
“The platforms should be looking at seeing whether or not there are individuals flooding the market and trying to make a hashtag more toxic than it actually is,” he added.
Farmers have been protesting three new agricultural laws they say will reduce their earnings, jeopardize their livelihoods and benefit private corporations.
The Indian government has made amendments and provided assurances, in writing, about a minimum support price, which is one of the elements at the heart of the protests, but farmers remain firm in continuing the standoff until the reforms are repealed.
Farmers have remained camped out near India’s capital city for nearly three weeks, and the country’s supreme court has upheld their right to peacefully demonstrate and urged for a solution, including delaying the farm laws in question.
“I think if anything it provides hope and bolsters the demands of the farmers who’ve said they’re willing to stick it out for six months,” Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said.
Walia, who is also on the board of the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy, said this movement has also drawn attention to farmers’ rights in B.C.
“It’s really calling attention to the state of the agricultural sector and what we need to do not only in India but also here locally for us as consumers but also for themselves that they have a right to livelihood as well,” she said.
“For so many British Columbians, particularly those of Punjabi or Sikh decent, there’s a lot of connection to this movement,” Walia added.
The group Our Avaaz is planning more solidarity events planned in Vancouver this weekend including a protest at Facebook’s downtown offices on Sunday following a series of volunteerism initiatives including a community cleanup, and blanket drive.
Armed with the kind of resolve shown by farmers, Canadian supporters say they won’t let this so-called social media sabotage, get in their way.
“If they’re going to shut us out on social media, we need to come out from behind our screens and show them that we’re not just something you can shut down, we’re here, we’re real people and we’re fighting for something real,” Kaur said.