June 9 2022 GM

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Glitter Meetups

Glitter Meetup is the weekly town hall of the Internet Freedom community at the IFF Square on the IFF Mattermost, at 9am EST / 1pm UTC. Do you need an invite? Learn how to get one here.

Date: Thursday, June 9th

Time: 9am EDT / 1pm UTC

Who: Ifat Gazia

Moderator: Astha

Where: On IFF Mattermost Square Channel.

How social media censorship affects dissidents in Kashmir

Join us for a discussion about Ifat's research on how and why big tech platforms stifle minority and dissident voices at the behest of the governments they criticize, especially in the militarized zone of Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Ifat Gazia is a Kashmiri Muslim doing a Ph.D. degree in Communications at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a podcaster, a filmmaker, and a scholar. She also holds a post-graduate degree from SOAS, the University of London in Media. She studies different social and technological aspects of life under military occupation.

Notes

Ifat, can you start by telling us a little about you: where you are from, what you do, and a brief description of your experience in the digital rights space so far?

  • I am a Kashmiri Muslim. A scholar, filmmaker, and podcaster, currently doing a Ph.D. in Communications at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I also host and produce The Kashmir Podcast. My experience with digital rights spaces isn’t much, to be honest. It is very limited, considering I am also new in the US. However, I am beginning to explore it.

Can you tell us about what you are currently researching and working on?

  • I am currently looking at silencing and censorship: how big tech platforms work with authoritarian governments to stifle minority dissident voices.
  • A big part of work also includes creating tools to fight the same.
  • As a minority dissident myself, I face silencing myself.

For anyone unfamiliar with the conflict in Kashmir, where you're from, can you tell us how Kashmiris have been impacted by the lack of access to the internet and other restrictions in their digital rights over the last decade?

  • Kashmir is a disputed territory. It has been under India's control since 1947. Just two months after India got independence from the 200 year long British rule, they took over Kashmir. This has resulted in violence, killings, human rights violations of all kinds, and thus an abnormal and unstable life for all of us.
  • Part of the occupation of Kashmir has been a blackout of online speech.
  • Kashmir has experienced the longest internet blockage ever enforced in a democracy.
  • For seven months of 2019-2020, the Indian government cut internet and phone connectivity to Kashmir.
  • They did eventually restore slow, 2G connectivity but it came with limited access to a whitelist of permitted internet sites.
  • The Indian government cited concerns over terrorism to justify the blackout, but the net effect has been plunging more than eight million people into a pre-internet age, and to dividing families and friends from Kashmiris in the diaspora.
  • Even now, mobile internet is regularly suspended during “encounters” between the Indian Military and Kashmiris. Since 2012, more than 305 internet shutdowns have been reported in the Kashmir region.
  • Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms have continually silenced Kashmiri voices in the digital space, especially since 2017.

Can you explain some of the more recent developments in the policies around social media content moderation in Kashmir?

  • I see the internet as a human right in this day and age. Kashmiris have to live without it every now and then. It is also being used as a weapon against us, to surveil and censor. Needless to say how in the absence of the internet education and healthcare completely comes to a halt. There was no binge-watching for Kashmiri people during the pandemic. There was no access to the CDC website. Nothing.
  • The recent policy around media in Kashmir has left journalists and civil society members invisible.
  • You basically cannot share anything.'unpleasant' about the government.
  • Look at how many people including journalists are in jail just for doing their job.

Are there any incidents of online hate speech, misinfo/disinformation, or incited online violence against people of Kashmir?

How do Kashmiri communities outside Kashmir are (if they are) helping with the flow of info within Kashmir?

  • I am not sure if we can help with that because even people in the diaspora are being threatened and surveilled. You write a tweet about Kashmir and the forces show up on your door in Kashmir.
  • The main job is to control info within Kashmir. Kashmir is like a panopticon.

This is a good time perhaps to ask you, Ifat, about your own experience with government censorship over your podcast and personal social media accounts – can you tell us about that experience and how it impacted your work?

  • I have been severely affected personally but thanks to their silencing, I started looking more and more into it and finding ways of how to fight against it.
  • I have written about this in detail last year for anyone who wants to know the details.

Do all people in Kashmir speak the Kashmiri as their first language? and if yes, do you think that the language gap in social media platforms weakens the screening of hate speech and violence against people of Kashmir?

  • No, there are many indigenous languages that people speak in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, within Kashmir valley we mostly speak Kashmiri
  • Platform moderation and languages has been a debate for a while around the world
  • I think computer scientists are trying to come up with new ways of battling this considering there are thousands of languages in the world.
  • For Kashmiris in general nobody cares. Not the Social Media platforms and not any governments So we just accept whatever comes our way!

You mentioned you have found ways to fight against it -- can you tell us more? How are activists navigating these restrictions in order to continue doing their work?

  • For example, I created an anti-harrassment filter for Twitter.
  • Since people began interacting in computer-mediated spaces, there has been a need to block or silence abusive users. In 2014 Gamergate brought the issue of online harassment into popular attention and inspired a wave of development of tools and techniques for mitigating online abuse. Unfortunately, online abuse remains a serious problem. Individuals, and particularly activists and political dissidents, face intense harassment on platforms like Twitter, designed to silence their speech. . Blocking known abusers is only a partial solution. In cases of sustained harassment, it may be appropriate to block likely abusers. My paper identifies a method to block likely abusers on Twitter, using Kashmiri dissidents and Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) harassers as a case study. A combination of text analysis and social network analysis has been used to develop a novel filtering strategy. Our tests indicate that the method is 97% effective and might be also used in other minority communities and other social media platforms.
  • This paper is still under review. It should be out in the world soon

Is this filter a tool that could maybe be available to other dissidents for use in the future?

  • Yes. Because I suffer from this myself, as a researcher I was able to build the right tool.

And what about big tech and social media platforms? Would they allow for this? Additionally, can you tell us what role big tech has played in enabling the government's attempts to restrict dissidents?

  • A common method of censorship involves the platform directly removing user content or restricting profiles at the behest of the Indian government, or they also do it in response to reports from other users.
  • Aside from this, platforms have employed censorship methodologies that operate at an algorithmic level and elude detection, such as by restricting the reach of user content and manipulating search results.
  • It is not only important to understand the use of technology in social movements to understand the sentiments of people who use it but also understand the intentions of the authoritarian governments who use the same internet to choke dissent
  • Mass reporting of Kashmiri Twitter accounts or direct suspension by Twitter has lately become very common.
  • Since January 2021, the account for Stand with Kashmir was suspended twice and so were the accounts of dozens of Kashmiri activists and academics.

So a platform like Twitter is abiding by government demands and enabling such methodologies so that they can freely operate in the country? or is financial profit the incentive? or both?

  • Government needs certain tools to engage in different kinds of censorship.
  • For example, China used custom made equipment to create it’s ‘Great Firewall’, Yemen purchased off the shelf software and Palestinian authorities installed open-sourced software to achieve the goal (York, 2021).
  • Despite its global reputation for democracy, India is one of the biggest censors of the internet, a behaviour almost universally accepted to be more characteristic of autocracies than democracies.
  • For India it is their Information Technology Act (IT Act), 2000. Its section 66A could be basically used to criminalize anything that does not suit the authorities (Bailey, 2014).
  • It's both and yes they abide by the governments. If you look at my piece I write about my own experiences, you will see how Twitter was communicating with me for almost a year before pulling down my accounts.

Can you tell us quickly what reason Twitter gave for pulling down your account?

  • For me, they sent me multiple emails saying the government of India wants them to disable my accounts. Eventually, when my account was pulled down, they said I was spamming and manipulating the platform.

You delved into this briefly when you mentioned China, Yemen and Palestine, but are there any parallels or contrasts to be drawn between Kashmir and other oppressed parts of the world? How can digital rights activists from other regions extend support?

  • Absolutely yes. The more I am getting to read about other places under authoritarian regimes, the more I relate. I recently presented on a panel with a Palestinian and Venuzuvalian and realized how our stories of digital oppression were intertwined.
  • Before support we really need to come together and learn about each other. then we can collectively build tools and share each other's knowledge in different fields

and build something that no fascist structure can destroy. A technology for digitally oppressed people by digitally oppressed people

How do you personally build resilience and fight the exhaustion of doing this work, if you don't mind me asking?

  • Growing up I only saw violence. I hoped things will be better when I was older. By that I mean post-teenage. Nothing changed. Rather things became worse. So I thought maybe I also need to play my part in change-making. So here I am. My resilience comes from the sacrifices that thousands of Kashmiris have made for Kashmir. Whether by getting killed or by living in exile. I also get my motivation and strength from the fact that I want my children to grow up in a better and free World, free Kashmir.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to add to our discussion today or mention to our attendees? How can we follow the work you're doing? And are you available to connect with on social media or other means?

  • Sure. I am on all social media platforms by @ifatgazia
  • My podcast and other work is available online
  • Please feel free to reach out at my school email: igazia@umass.edu