A week since Instagram and Facebook unblocked the hashtags ‘#Sikh’ and ‘#Sikhism’ after restricting their use for nearly three months, many in the community feel they have been left with more questions than answers.
On Friday, members of Facebook’s policy team met with a number of Sikh groups — including SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund), International NGO Khalsa Aid and the World Sikh Organisation — to address the issue.
Today, WSO participated in a call with Facebook and Instagram’s public policy team about the blocking of Sikh content.
Read the image for our full statement. pic.twitter.com/tLSZLCKXfG
— WSO (@WorldSikhOrg) June 13, 2020
SALDEF Executive Director Kiran Kaur Gill believes that while the meeting was a step in the right direction, a lot of their concerns went unaddressed. “We met with Facebook yesterday, however they did not answer our main questions. We are happy that they opened a dialogue. We just hope that it leads to actual change and that this type of action does not happen again,” she told indianexpress.com.
The ‘accidental’ hashtag ban by Instagram and Facebook was not the only instance of Sikh content being censored in the past few weeks. Multiple Sikh content creators and media outlets claim they have been unable to access their social media profiles this month. The restrictions were not limited to Instagram and Facebook alone, with the homepages of prominent Sikh news channels KTV Global and Akaal channel being blocked on YouTube.
— Sikh Council UK (@SCUKofficial) June 11, 2020
Backstory: Why was the hashtag ‘#Sikh’ blocked on Instagram?
Earlier this month, like other years, thousands of social media users from across the world were using #NeverForget1984 to mark the 36th anniversary of Operation Blue Star and the anti-Sikh riots. Around this time, many Instagram and Facebook users complained that when they searched for #Sikh and #Sikhism on the social media platforms, an error message popped up informing them that the hashtags had been temporarily restricted. Prominent Sikh groups and activists were quick to point out the suspicious timing of the incident.
We ask you @instagram what the reason for this blocking is, to suppress the truth?
— Sikh 2 Inspire (@Sikh2Inspire) June 3, 2020
Following the criticism, Instagram on June 3 issued an apology and announced that the hashtags had been unblocked on both social media platforms. The Facebook-owned photo sharing app revealed that the restrictions had been ‘mistakenly’ imposed over three months ago after a reported post was inaccurately reviewed by their team.
— Instagram Comms (@InstagramComms) June 3, 2020
On reaching out to Instagram, indianexpress.com was told that the company did not want to comment further on the incident.
Why many felt Instagram’s apology wasn’t enough
Soon after Instagram’s PR arm released the statement earlier this month, SALDEF had launched an online petition demanding that Facebook reveal details of their investigation.
— SALDEF (@SALDEF) June 5, 2020
“We realised on June 3, 2020 that the hashtag had been blocked. SALDEF feels that Facebook and Instagram could have had a better system in place that would have caught this mistake before the complete block on #Sikh was imposed,” Gill said. SALDEF urged Facebook to lay out the steps they claim to have adopted to ensure that an incident like this is not repeated.
Of the five tweets that Instagram shared about the incident last week, the company offered a mere two sentence explanation of how the block was accidentally imposed three months ago. They claim a single reported post was incorrectly reviewed by their team. But social media users were quick to question how one flagged post could lead to such widespread restrictions on Sikh-related content.
We have questions! What was the report? Was it for one post or more? What was the mistake in the review?
We regularly receive complaints regarding censorship of Sikh posts on FB and Instagram. We need to discuss this further.
Please get in touch – email email@example.com
— SikhPressAssociation (@SikhPA) June 4, 2020
Please update what action has been taken against the members of your teams responsible for this error. Find out if they "all" committed a clerical error or was their a deeper communal bias at play.
— Sumit Chaturvedi (@SumitJournalist) June 4, 2020
California-based blogger Rupinder Mohan Singh, who writes about Sikh-American issues on his website AmericanTurban.com, felt Instagram was not transparent about the source of the incident who reported the hashtag in the first place? “The apology is a basic action, but for it to be meaningful, we need to know what/who exactly they identified as the problem, and what steps the platforms are taking to make sure doesn’t happen again. I also wonder how attempting to censor an entire faith group can happen with such impunity,” he told indianexpress.com.
“Online bullying, copyright infringement, misleading information and undue influence run rampant on these platforms, and often in sophisticated and automated ways. These platforms have largely stepped away from the regulating role and as such need to be regulated by a third party and held accountable for what they allow to happen on their platforms, and their performance therein,” Rupinder said.
On June 10, Sikh-run record label Immortal Productions tweeted that their Facebook page and Instagram account had been disabled without warning. The devotional music production company claimed that the restrictions — imposed right before their upcoming release — was part of a “coordinated censorship attack” aimed at silencing Sikhs.
The Immortal Productions Instagram and Facebook accounts have been banned prior to our upcoming release. This is part of the recent coordinated censorship attacks aimed at silencing Sikhs. #Sikh #NeverForget1984 #NeverForget84 #Sikhs pic.twitter.com/nd3e9RP31I
— Immortal Productions (@ShaheediSingh) June 10, 2020
In a letter addressed to PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, UK-based Sikh Council accused the government of silencing Sikh media and urged them to reverse the bans imposed on the Akaal Channel and KTV Global online.
— Sikh Council UK (@SCUKofficial) June 11, 2020
Debates about censorship and regulation on social media have been gaining ground in recent times. Earlier this month, Instagram faced intense backlash after users posting about the Black Lives Matter movement complained that they were receiving ‘action blocked’ messages. The company said the sheer number of posts being shared with the hashtag had activated its automated anti-spam technology, and added that it was working towards resolving the issue.
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