Facebook vs Kashmir

Published January 1, 2020

FACEBOOK often struggles with its principles regarding freedom of speech for users versus its bottom line, which requires keeping powerful stakeholders happy.

This appeared to be on display once again on Monday, when the company blocked live streaming of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation’s news bulletins highlighting Indian atrocities in occupied Kashmir.

As reported by Radio Pakistan, Facebook had been sending messages since May warning the PBC of violating “community standards on dangerous individuals and organisations”.

The company’s spokesperson later clarified that the PBC’s access to Facebook Live was only temporarily restricted pending review.

Nonetheless, there is a broader pattern, since the death of Burhan Wani in 2016, of Facebook methodically censoring news and opinion on the Kashmir crisis.

Based on news reports and details shared by users, censorship activities occur in short, sharp spikes around current events connected to India. It is reasonable to assume that this policy is set in place through lobbying by India, one of Facebook’s critical markets.

The question of who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter; which struggle is legitimate and which is not, comes down to who has more sway with the social network, which is largely determined by size and scope of the market, not by higher principles or nuanced examination of the issue at hand.

It is true that Facebook is facing a Herculean task trying to manage the inevitable politics that result from being responsible for billions of users globally — it encounters challenges that have never been faced by any organisation historically — but it is doing a poor job of it.

This has real-world consequences, especially in conflict zones.

The likelihood that the social network will change its modus operandi is slim, and given that Twitter is going down the same path of censorship, the internet as a whole will become increasingly regulated in favour of those with the most power.

For Kashmiris and those lobbying for their rights, social media in its current form is more curse than blessing.

In such a situation, the suggestion by the prime minister’s aide Firdous Ashiq Awan that Pakistan stop relying heavily on these social media platforms isn’t as absurd as it sounds. The internet is still unpredictable; companies rise and fall, and if Facebook, Twitter and YouTube do not offer their users the freedom they seek, they will go elsewhere. This is a fundamental the platforms must recognise sooner rather than later.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2020

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