Posts Tagged ‘social media’

Israeli government-sponsored app goes after HRW for Apartheid categorisation

May 10, 2021

Alan Macleod in Mint-press News of 7 May 2021 studies in quite some detail the way in which the recently released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has made waves around the world and the organised backlash that followed.

For the first time, the New York-based non-governmental organization has categorized Israel as an apartheid state guilty of “crimes against humanity.” [see also`: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/01/18/israel-and-apartheid-israeli-human-rights-group-stirs-debate/]

The 213-page study goes into detail about a range of racist laws and policies carried out by successive administrations, concluding that there is an “overarching Israeli government policy to maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians and grave abuses committed against Palestinians living in the occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.” The report accuses the state of Israel of widespread “institutional discrimination” and of “denying millions of Palestinians their fundamental rights…solely because they are Palestinian and not Jewish.” It further notes that, across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it has “sought to maximize the land available for Jewish communities and to concentrate most Palestinians in dense population centers.”

Prominent voices have warned for years that apartheid lurks just around the corner if the trajectory of Israel’s rule over Palestinians does not change,” said the organization’s executive director, Kenneth Roth. “This detailed study shows that Israeli authorities have already turned that corner and today are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

Perhaps most importantly, Human Rights Watch is now openly calling for global action to end the repression. The report asks the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute those involved in Palestinian persecution. While not explicitly endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sactions (BDS) movement, Human Rights Watch directly advocates that “[s]tates should impose individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against officials and individuals responsible for the continued commission of these serious crimes,” and for businesses to “cease business activities that directly contribute to the crimes of apartheid and persecution.”

A big splash

The report was widely covered across the world and has been heralded by Palestine solidarity activists, with experts seeing it as a potential turning point in the struggle for Palestinian sovereignty. “It was inevitable that Human Rights Watch would have to declare Israel an Apartheid state and, from what I hear, Amnesty International is going to be next to say it,Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada told MintPress. “It puts Israel’s backers in a difficult spot because Human Rights Watch is really part of the establishment so they cannot just dismiss it and it makes it impossible to ignore… It is harder for them to say Human Rights Watch is anti-Semitic, but they’re trying it anyway,” he added.

Trying indeed. Michigan Congresswoman Lisa McClain tweeted that “Human Rights Watch has shown again how they have an anti-Israel agenda,” suggesting they instead focus their attention on China or Iran’s repressive governments. “Hostility and hypocrisy are HRW’s hallmarks when it comes to Israel,” wrote the American Jewish Committee. The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board was equally condemnatory, denouncing what they saw as the “cynical appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the actual apartheid regime.” Other Israeli journalists described the report as “a disgrace to the memory of the millions who suffered under that policy [apartheid] in South Africa.” The news even made enough waves to force a response from the White House. Press Secretary Jen Psaki replied that “[a]s to the question of whether Israel’s actions constitute apartheid, that is not the view of this administration.”

Organized spontaneity

Yet much of the online anger at the report was actually manufactured by an Israeli government-sponsored app, Act.IL, which organized supporters of the Jewish state to act in sync to create an artificial groundswell of opposition to it. The app, which reportedly has a budget of over $1 million per year, instructed users to leave combative comments on Facebook, Twitter, and popular news outlets, and to like and promote others who did the same.

Human Rights Watch’s Facebook post announcing the report’s release has received over 1,400 comments, hundreds of them written in a similar, scathingly negative tone. One that the app directly told users to signal boost, for instance, described Palestinians as a people “indoctrinated with hate for Israel and Jews for over 100 years,” and claimed they were paid salaries to murder Israelis. It also presented the 1967 war and occupation as a humanitarian effort to bring electricity and other infrastructure to Arabs.

Another “mission” Act.IL gave its users was to promote a Facebook comment attacking the report as “nothing more than hate speech” and calling its lead author a “rabid anti-Zionist and Israel hater.”Omar Shakir HRW

One of the many images provided to Act.IL users for their astroturfing campaign against HRW

Act.IL is one of the chief tools in Israel’s online public relations enterprise. The app debuted in 2017 and is part of what Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan called an “Iron Dome of Truth.” “Our cell phones are the number one weapon against us,” he explained, noting that public opinion in the U.S. was beginning to turn against them. While most of the app’s nearly 20,000 users are volunteers, a core of them are paid operatives, with many students receiving scholarships as a reward for their work.

The app has been designed to feel like a game, with points assigned for completing “missions” such as sharing pro-Israel videos, reporting anti-Israel content, signing petitions, or attending online seminars. Users can track their progress on leaderboards, earn badges and prizes, and chat with other members of the community. While it might feel like Animal Crossing or World of Warcraft for some, its creators see this very much as a new front in the war against Palestine. Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked categorizes BDS as “another branch of terrorism in the modern age,” and has been an important voice in taking the fight to a new front.

An Act.IL mission encouraging astroturfing of online discussions. Source |
@AntiBDSApp

There is also an online toolkit full of folders of responses to typical questions and issues that arise. Users can, for instance, go to the BDS folder to find stock replies to their arguments. Or they can go to a specific folder to find articles, images and videos they can use to demonize Hamas.

The missions are organized by outlet, so users can, for instance, target only Facebook, Telegram, or other platforms they are most familiar with. At the time of writing, there are 10 missions each to complete on Facebook and YouTube, 30 on Instagram, 25 on Twitter.

One current challenge is to upvote an answer to a question on Quora that asks about the validity and purpose of checkpoints in the West Bank. The answer claims they are purely about protection from terror attacks, and claims that Red Crescent ambulances are used to ferry bombs around the area. Other missions include pressuring an online store to remove a bag with a message stating “Make Israel Palestine Again.”Act.IL

An Act.IL “mission” encouraging users to demand the removal of products with pro-Palestinian messaging

It is quite astounding how openly they do it. But, of course, when you see a comment online, you wouldn’t necessarily think that it was coming from the Israeli government, but this is essentially what is happening,” Winstanley said. “Israel is not the only state to do this, but they do it fairly successfully.

For all this, however, it is clear that Act.IL has a serious problem with user retention and lacks the volunteer numbers for it to be truly game changing.

Controlling the message

In a time of heightened awareness about foreign government interference online, it is particularly surprising that these operations can be openly carried out across virtually every major platform. Big tech companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are constantly deleting tens of thousands of Russian, Chinese, Iranian and Cuban accounts belonging to what they claim are organized, state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.

In an effort to gauge the legality of its operations, MintPress reached out to Facebook, YouTube, Quora, and other big platforms used by Act.IL. We received no response from any of them. While this is particularly noteworthy — as these companies have teams of public relations representatives and are extremely forthright and timely with responses on other issues — it is perhaps not surprising. Facebook especially has long been working closely with the Israeli government in deciding which voices to censor. As far back as 2016, Ayelet Shaked boasted that Facebook removed 95% of the posts her office asked them to. Yet when Shaked herself called for a genocidal war against Palestine and its women, who give birth to “little snakes,” not only did the post remain online, it received thousands of likes and was widely circulated.

“The concern is that Facebook is adopting Israeli policy and terminology when it comes to defining what incitement is,” said Nadim Nashif, co-founder of 7amleh, the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media. 7amleh was therefore dismayed when last year, Facebook appointed former Israeli Minister of Justice Emi Palmor to its Oversight Board, the council having the final say in the moderation of content on the platform used by 2.6 billion people worldwide. In her role as justice minister, Palmor was directly implicated in the persecution and subjugation of Palestinians.

Earlier this year, an Israeli Defense Forces soldier attempted to sue a Palestinian-American activist living in California over an allegedly slanderous Facebook post condemning her for participating in ethnic cleansing. Remarkably, the plaintiff attempted to convince a California judge to apply Israeli law to the incident, despite the fact that both she and the defendant are American citizens. https://cdn.iframe.ly/r7H7ueP?iframe=card-small&v=1&app=1

Inside the world of academia, professors critical of Israel have found themselves pushed out of the profession. In 2007, prominent critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University for political reasons. Seven years later, the University of Illinois “unhired” Steven Sailata for his comments denouncing Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza. Emails showed that wealthy donors put significant pressure on the university to pull the plug on him. More recently, Cornel West was blocked from a tenured job at Harvard this year, despite having previously held tenure at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. “Being the faculty advisor for the Palestinian student group was the one that probably went outside of the line for many Harvard staff,” West told Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski. “It’s a joke. It’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous. It’s preposterous that it wouldn’t have something to do with politics.”

Top media figures have also paid the price for their support of BDS. CNN fired commentator Marc Lamont Hill after he made a speech at the United Nations calling for a free Palestine. Meanwhile, journalist Abby Martin was blocked from speaking at a conference at Georgia Southern University last year after she refused to sign a contract promising to renounce BDS. Georgia is one of dozens of U.S. states to have anti-BDS legislation, essentially forcing any would-be recipient of public contracts or funds, including government employees, to sign a pledge not to boycott Israel. Martin is currently suing the state of Georgia. MintCast Interviews Abby Martin About Her Anti-BDS Lawsuit & The Israel Lobby

While Human Rights Watch’s report is new, the charge of apartheid is not. In 2017, a United Nations report “clearly and frankly concludes” that Israel is “a racist state that has established an apartheid system that persecutes the Palestinian people.” Earlier this year, Israeli human rights organization B’TSelem also used the word “apartheid,” claiming that Israel had established “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.”…

Advocates for Palestine hailed Human Rights Watch’s study. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies wrote:

There can be little doubt that much of HRW’s decision to issue this report now was based on the recognition that not only is it no longer political suicide to call Israeli apartheid what it is, but that we are now at a tipping point whereby failing to call out apartheid risks losing credibility for a human rights organization. It’s a huge victory for our movement.”

The battle, however, is far from won, and it is clear that the Israel lobby will continue to fight to hold back the tide until it is insurmountable.

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.

https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/27/abusive-israeli-policies-constitute-crimes-apartheid-persecution

Arab Spring: information technology platforms no longer support human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa

December 18, 2020

Jason Kelley in the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) of 17 December 2020 summarizes a joint statement by over 30 NGOs saying that the platform policies and content moderation procedures of the tech giants now too often lead to the silencing and erasure of critical voices from across the region. Arbitrary and non-transparent account suspension and removal of political and dissenting speech has become so frequent and systematic in the area that it cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents or the result of transitory errors in automated decision-making.

Young people protest in Morocco, 2011, photo by Magharebia

This year is the tenth anniversary of what became known as the “Arab Spring”, in which activists and citizens across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) used social media to document the conditions in which they lived, to push for political change and social justice, and to draw the world’s attention to their movement. For many, it was the first time they had seen how the Internet could have a role to play in pushing for human rights across the world. Emerging social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all basked in the reflected glory of press coverage that centered their part in the protests: often to the exclusion of those who were actually on the streets. The years after the uprisings failed to live up to the optimism of the time. Offline, the authoritarian backlash against the democratic protests has meant that many of those who fought for justice a decade ago, are still fighting now.

The letter asks for several concrete measures to ensure that users across the region are treated fairly and are able to express themselves freely:

  • Do not engage in arbitrary or unfair discrimination.
  • Invest in the regional expertise to develop and implement context-based content moderation decisions aligned with human rights frameworks.
  • Pay special attention to cases arising from war and conflict zones.
  • Preserve restricted content related to cases arising from war and conflict zones.
  • Go beyond public apologies for technical failures, and provide greater transparency, notice, and offer meaningful and timely appeals for users by implementing the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation.

Content moderation policies are not only critical to ensuring robust political debate. They are key to expanding and protecting human rights.  Ten years out from those powerful protests, it’s clear that authoritarian and repressive regimes will do everything in their power to stop free and open expression. Platforms have an obligation to note and act on the effects content moderation has on oppressed communities, in MENA and elsewhere. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/]

In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook, wrote

By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.

Instead, governments around the world have chosen authoritarianism, and platforms have contributed to the repression. It’s time for that to end.

Read the full letter demanding that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube stop silencing critical voices from the Middle East and North Africa, reproduced below:

17 December 2020

Open Letter to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube: Stop silencing critical voices from the Middle East and North Africa

Ten years ago today, 26-year old Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest over injustice and state marginalization, igniting mass uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa. 

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring, we, the undersigned activists, journalists, and human rights organizations, have come together to voice our frustration and dismay at how platform policies and content moderation procedures all too often lead to the silencing and erasure of critical voices from marginalized and oppressed communities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Arab Spring is historic for many reasons, and one of its outstanding legacies is how activists and citizens have used social media to push for political change and social justice, cementing the internet as an essential enabler of human rights in the digital age.   

Social media companies boast of the role they play in connecting people. As Mark Zuckerberg famously wrote in his 2012 Founder’s Letter

“By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored. Over time, we expect governments will become more responsive to issues and concerns raised directly by all their people rather than through intermediaries controlled by a select few.”

Zuckerberg’s prediction was wrong. Instead, more governments around the world have chosen authoritarianism, and platforms have contributed to their repression by making deals with oppressive heads of state; opening doors to dictators; and censoring key activists, journalists, and other changemakers throughout the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes at the behest of other governments:

  • Tunisia: In June 2020, Facebook permanently disabled more than 60 accounts of Tunisian activists, journalists, and musicians on scant evidence. While many were reinstated, thanks to the quick reaction from civil society groups, accounts of Tunisian artists and musicians still have not been restored. We sent a coalition letter to Facebook on the matter but we didn’t receive a public response.
  • Syria: In early 2020, Syrian activists launched a campaign to denounce Facebook’s decision to take down/disable thousands of anti-Assad accounts and pages that documented war crimes since 2011, under the pretext of removing terrorist content. Despite the appeal, a number of those accounts remain suspended. Similarly, Syrians have documented how YouTube is literally erasing their history.
  • Palestine: Palestinian activists and social media users have been campaigning since 2016 to raise awareness around social media companies’ censorial practices. In May 2020, at least 52 Facebook accounts of Palestinian activists and journalists were suspended, and more have since been restricted. Twitter suspended the account of a verified media agency, Quds News Network, reportedly on suspicion that the agency was linked to terrorist groups. Requests to Twitter to look into the matter have gone unanswered. Palestinian social media users have also expressed concern numerous times about discriminatory platform policies.
  • Egypt: In early October 2019, Twitter suspended en masse the accounts of Egyptian dissidents living in Egypt and across the diaspora, directly following the eruption of anti-Sisi protests in Egypt. Twitter suspended the account of one activist with over 350,000 followers in December 2017, and the account still has yet to be restored. The same activist’s Facebook account was also suspended in November 2017 and restored only after international intervention. YouTube removed his account earlier in 2007.

Examples such as these are far too numerous, and they contribute to the widely shared perception among activists and users in MENA and the Global South that these platforms do not care about them, and often fail to protect human rights defenders when concerns are raised.  

Arbitrary and non-transparent account suspension and removal of political and dissenting speech has become so frequent and systematic that they cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents or the result of transitory errors in automated decision-making. 

While Facebook and Twitter can be swift in responding to public outcry from activists or private advocacy by human rights organizations (particularly in the United States and Europe), in most cases responses to advocates in the MENA region leave much to be desired. End-users are frequently not informed of which rule they violated, and are not provided a means to appeal to a human moderator. 

Remedy and redress should not be a privilege reserved for those who have access to power or can make their voices heard. The status quo cannot continue. 

The MENA region has one of the world’s worst records on freedom of expression, and social media remains critical for helping people connect, organize, and document human rights violations and abuses. 

We urge you to not be complicit in censorship and erasure of oppressed communities’ narratives and histories, and we ask you to implement the following measures to ensure that users across the region are treated fairly and are able to express themselves freely:

  • Do not engage in arbitrary or unfair discrimination. Actively engage with local users, activists, human rights experts, academics, and civil society from the MENA region to review grievances. Regional political, social, cultural context(s) and nuances must be factored in when implementing, developing, and revising policies, products and services. 
  • Invest in the necessary local and regional expertise to develop and implement context-based content moderation decisions aligned with human rights frameworks in the MENA region.  A bare minimum would be to hire content moderators who understand the various and diverse dialects and spoken Arabic in the twenty-two Arab states. Those moderators should be provided with the support they need to do their job safely, healthily, and in consultation with their peers, including senior management.
  • Pay special attention to cases arising from war and conflict zones to ensure content moderation decisions do not unfairly target marginalized communities. For example, documentation of human rights abuses and violations is a legitimate activity distinct from disseminating or glorifying terrorist or extremist content. As noted in a recent letter to the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, more transparency is needed regarding definitions and moderation of terrorist and violent extremist (TVEC) content
  • Preserve restricted content related to cases arising from war and conflict zones that Facebook makes unavailable, as it could serve as evidence for victims and organizations seeking to hold perpetrators accountable. Ensure that such content is made available to international and national judicial authorities without undue delay.
  • Public apologies for technical errors are not sufficient when erroneous content moderation decisions are not changed. Companies must provide greater transparency, notice, and offer meaningful and timely appeals for users. The Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability in Content Moderation, which Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube endorsed in 2019, offer a baseline set of guidelines that must be immediately implemented. 

Signed,

Access Now
Arabic Network for Human Rights Information — ANHRI
Article 19
Association for Progressive Communications — APC
Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive
Avaaz
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
The Computational Propaganda Project
Daaarb — News — website
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor
Global Voices
Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)
Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists Organization
Humena for Human Rights and Civic Engagement
IFEX
Ilam- Media Center For Arab Palestinians In Israel
ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies
Initiative Mawjoudin pour l’égalité
Iraqi Network for Social Media – INSMnetwork
I WATCH Organisation (Transparency International — Tunisia)
Khaled Elbalshy – Daaarb website – Editor in Chief
Mahmoud Ghazayel, Independent
Marlena Wisniak, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Masaar — Technology and Law Community
Michael Karanicolas, Wikimedia/Yale Law School Initiative on Intermediaries and Information
Mohamed Suliman, Internet activist
My.Kali magazine — Middle East and North Africa
Palestine Digital Rights Coalition (PDRC)
The Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy
Pen Iraq
Quds News Network
Ranking Digital Rights
Rima Sghaier, Independent
Sada Social Center
Skyline International for Human Rights
SMEX
Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Taraaz
Temi Lasade-Anderson, Digital Action
WITNESS
Vigilance Association for Democracy and the Civic State — Tunisia
7amleh – The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media

https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/12/decade-after-arab-spring-platforms-have-turned-their-backs-critical-voices-middle

Vloggers selling their souls to boost image of Arab regimes

September 2, 2020

Mat Nashed in Ozy.com of 1 september 2020 addresses a major but often neglected issue: The Secret Weapon of Arab Regimes — Influencers and Vloggers. It is an excellent piece worth reading in full (see below). I have several times drawn attention to anti-human rights celebrity endorsements [e.g. see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/01/13/saudi-arabia-finds-that-celebrities-are-easier-to-buy-than-human-rights-ngos/] and sports washing [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/sports-washing/]/

Read the rest of this entry »

Asfreeas Jafri wrote interesting opinion on “Majoritarianism”

July 24, 2020

Asfreeas Jafri in Politics, of 14th July, 2020 wrote a fascinating opinion piece which I think deserves more attention. It is mostly about India but has wider implications: for ease of reference here the full text:

One complaint I often get from friends is that I say very “offensive” things online. My Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, they accuse, are filled with the same sad and angry words against Islamophobia. Although despite my repetitive rants, they continue to ignore the agony of these words.

On July 10, 2020, the Turkish president announced that Hagia Sophia would be a mosque again.

Amongst other things, I am accused of being biased. Also, I am accused to be writing for a vested agenda. Usually, my Hindu friends make these allegations since I write a lot about the persecution of Indian Muslims. However, recently I noticed Muslim friends on social media making the same kind of accusations against those who expressed displeasure at the conversion of Hagia Sofia into a mosque.[ see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/06/the-unholy-wisdom-of-invoking-sovereignty/]

A few days back, some of them were irked after being questioned for running a homophobic WhySoProud trend on Twitter. This time the allegation against those Muslims who opposed this conversion is that they are doing this to please “Hindu liberals”.

Those who make these charges are undermining our agency and reason. It is insulting for me to think that what I and several other Muslims write, is not out of our individual agency and free will. When someone as outspoken as Umar Khalid is accused of doing that by several Muslims, I feel that we need to introspect.

The attackers are overlooking Umar’s incisive critique of Islamophobia in the Indian left. Muslims who are opposed to this are being called apologetic. I never pledged allegiance to the new sultan of Turkey. Not calling out Erdogan’s vile actions or political gimmicks does not fill any Muslims with a sense of vicarious guilt, at least in front of people we are allegedly supposed to be pleasing. But to say that those who dislike Erdogan are apologetic is quite irresponsible.

I will any day stand with someone like Umar Khalid who has been a constant ally in the fight against Islamophobia, rather than choosing a faraway ‘Sultan’ who is hardly bothered about the existence of Indian Muslims. It is people like Umar whose strong and sharp words have made young Muslims more unapologetic and bothered about their rights than their predecessors.

The other charge was against those liberals who wanted schools and hospitals on that disputed land, some congress leaders and “practising Hindu atheist” liberals like Dhruv Rathee who had strongly supported the Ayodhya verdict but are now opposed to Erdogan’s move. To many people’s shock, they had claimed that the Ayodhya verdict was respectable to all sides and that it will put a halt to the hate against Muslims. It did not halt. It actually increased.

I agree that this hypocrisy should be called out but when you also support either of the two majoritarian displays of power, are you not a hypocrite too? Also, what about those who have been vehemently opposed to the demolition and protested the SC verdict on Ayodhya? Do they have the right to comment on this?

Some found the comparison of Hagia Sofia with Babri Masjid as problematic. They said that it is not as bad in Turkey as it is in India. Umar rightly asks, ‘are we waiting for it to be that bad?’ Babri was illegally demolished and mobs killed hundreds. The history of these two events is different but what makes the comparison fair is how the Indian and Turkish governments and judiciary ignored the sentiment of the Muslim and Christian minorities. That the majoritarian will become the conscience of the state is starkly similar in both these cases.

As per media reports, Christians were blamed for spreading Coronavirus in Turkey. Consequently, some churches were attacked. The Christian community has faced mysterious disappearances and deaths, attacks and propaganda in recent years.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Recently, a group of Erdogan backed lawyers published an article to “redo” what happened in Armenia. As somebody who often hears Hindutva extremists warning to repeat 2002, which they eventually did in North East Delhi earlier this year, I understand the consequences of these hateful words. The increasing murderous hate attacks on Kurds in Erdogan’s Turkey are known to everybody except those who deny the Armenian genocide.

Erdogan supporters see him as the emperor of the neo-Ottoman empire. The majority rallies behind his brand of Islamic nationalism. Through a constitutional referendum, he has vested immense new authority in himself. Institutions look timid. Rogue opposition is either tamed or jailed. Rivals have been pushed into a tunnel of silence.

The pandemic was used to target the feeble opposition while political prisoners languishing in jails were given no relief. Amnesty International observed that rivals have been targeted using anti-terror laws during the pandemic.

Apart from the political opposition, universities, intellectuals, writers and journalists have invited the severe wrath of the Sultan. Many “Anti-national” academics have lost their jobs in recent years. Many renowned Human rights defenders and lawyers are behind bars.

Ever since the failed coup, suspicion and divisions amongst the Turks has reached new heights. The recent losses in elections, a growing economic crisis and waning popularity of the ruling party are being seen as the reasons behind these desperate populist decisions.

Many wrote that the mosque was “bought” by the Ottomans centuries ago. I did not want to argue about that since copies of the receipt in modern digital font and scanned PDFs of the transaction are easily available on WhatsApp! Several individuals shared stories of Israel, Greece and Spain converting mosques into other structures. This was followed by “where were you then” and whataboutery. Ironically, if you are opposed to what the aforesaid nations did, then you should be opposed to what Turkey did as well.

At the same, I also acknowledge that the western media and academia in the post-cold war world villainised Islam and Muslims. The “Muslim victim” did not fit into the “war on terror” narrative pushed by the west.

The attack on Islam and Muslims did not receive the same kind of recognition or outrage, and was side-lined. Writers like Chomsky and Edward Said have noted the West’s white-washing of its crimes in that part of the world and its malicious contempt for Islam. This has increased anti-West hostility in that region.

A few months ago, I read a blog post while casually scrolling on social media. A young Erdogan critic made a very significant point which I think should be thought about more in the above-mentioned context. He said that as long as the western standards of Human rights will be limited to the people living on the American soil, as long as the west hates on ordinary refugees and working-class innocent Muslims, as long as the occupation and Persecution of Palestine are seen as Israel’s sovereign right, as long as people deny what the US did to ordinary Iraqis, people in the Middle East will continue to invest in defenders who eventually oppress.

In December, while protesting the CAA at Jantar Mantar, I spoke to the Wire and NDTV. That video went viral on social media. It was shared by hundreds of Muslims in Pakistan including actress Mehwish Hayat.

On that thread, many Pakistanis had expressed solidarity with Indian Muslims. I replied to one of the comments, “The best Pakistani Muslims can do in the interest of Indian Muslims is to set a good example for India’s Hindus by treating their minorities well.”

It angered a lot of people. They replied with “Thank you Jinnah” taunts. Many users made the same comments on Indian Muslim handles after the Delhi violence.

What were they actually mocking? They were mocking the fact that Indian Muslims refused to go to Pakistan to be a majority and instead chose to live as a minority in India. This also suggests that they believe minority persecution is natural and that Indian Muslims missed an opportunity to be a persecuting majority. The recent demolition of a Hindu religious structure in Islamabad or the post-Babri demolitions and attack on Hindu religious sites in Pakistan and Bangladesh describe majoritarian solidarity aptly.

On the recent Krishna temple debate, I saw an interesting thread on Twitter where a Pakistani Muslim was explaining it to a Pakistani Hindu that Temples are not essential to the faith20 of Hinduism while mosques are essential to the faith of Islam.

Babri Masjid
People demolishing the Babri Masjid.

In India, the judiciary applied the same principle to say that mosques are not necessary for prayers. This opens a door to another important debate: Are laws merely a manifestation of the majoritarian interpretation of morality and righteousness?

Even in the West, the so-called cradle of secularism, minorities face rampant discrimination and attacks. The recent murder of George Floyd in broad daylight attests to that. The need of the hour is strong debate around majoritarianism. It must gain global momentum.

As long as we are afraid of losing friends and being unpopular, such a debate is not possible. Right now, our only “agenda” is to rattle our people’s numbed conscience. We need to be courageous to be truthful. Sometimes, we have to offend those who like us when we offend others.

When violence becomes an everyday character of society, when irrationality overpowers reasons, when cruelty is seen defence, when injustice flows in a people’s vein, when malice rules their heads, oppression pleases their hearts and vulgarity embeds itself in their “proud” nation’s soul, writers are bound to protest, annoy, and be repetitive in what they write.

https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2020/07/we-need-a-global-debate-on-majoritarianism/

Media oppression in India and elsewhere is a shifting landscape

June 29, 2020

In “Media oppression is a shifting landscape” by Sevanti Ninan (a media commentator and founder-editor of TheHoot.org) published on 29 June 2020 in the Indian Telegraph you wil find a good analysis of the problems of news gathering in the current situation. It is about India but the analysis would be valid for many countries.

Arms of the government see journalism (of all kinds) not as a useful source of feedback at a time when the population is in distress but as a nuisance to be squashed. Fake news is no longer seen only as an electronic menace but as reporting with malign intent, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere.
Arms of the government see journalism (of all kinds) not as a useful source of feedback at a time when the population is in distress but as a nuisance to be squashed. Fake news is no longer seen only as an electronic menace but as reporting with malign intent, whether in Kashmir or elsewhere. Pexels

For some years now, the growing challenge to journalism has come from the increasing use of predictable laws (think of sedition and criminal defamation in the Indian Penal Code)….but media oppression is a shifting landscape. Tracking its changing features is just the first challenge. While the onset of Covid-19 has led to the government putting hitherto under-used laws to work, such as the Disaster Management Act and the Epidemic Diseases Act, these have been used in tandem with Sections of the IPC to criminalize reporting of the government’s response to the pandemic as well of the outcomes of its handling, such as the migrant exodus. Panicky administrations across the country have, so far, used no less than 14 Sections of the IPC and Sections of the IT Act (including the one that was struck down), the DMA, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the Motor Vehicles Act and the provisions of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to issue showcause notices, lodge first information reports against reporters and arrest, confine and torture them.

If newsgathering is being criminalized in some parts of the country, it is being policed in Jammu and Kashmir… it has been gifted a 50-page media policy, which makes the government the arbiter of fake news and mandates background checks of media owners and editors if they are to receive government advertising. Charming! Who knows what will follow elsewhere in the country.

Overall then, a convergence of factors is at work. Arms of the government see journalism (of all kinds) not as a useful source of feedback at a time when the population is in distress but as a nuisance to be squashed.

Electronically disseminated fake news, until now, was in the domain of technology. But when the charge is levelled at reporting on the ground in far-flung areas of the country, it enters the domain of physical fact-finding. Busting fake news with internet tools is one thing. Doing it for field reporting is quite another.…..

..What support structures can be put in place? The country has a Press Council, a Human Rights Commission and numerous courts. But it needs a growing network of human rights defenders, a galvanizing force created by an alliance of journalist organizations, concerned lawyers and civil society stalwarts to map a strategy for this canvas. The Press Council is selective in what it takes note of; one must also ask whether its censure changes anything on the ground.

So far, the response to a sustained assault on journalism has been statements issued by media bodies themselves. But journalists need allies at a time like this; solidarity within their own ranks is not enough to put pressure on the oppressors. Just as civil society has come together to keep alive a human rights campaign for the release of Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bhardwaj and others in the Bhima Koregaon case, journalists, particularly the embattled, invisible ones the districts, now need ballast in their fight to keep up the pressure.

Precedents will be set if the misuse of laws goes unchallenged. District magistrates across states labelling reporting as fake news will be further emboldened without a pushback.

See also reent: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/27/un-experts-address-3-big-ones-usa-china-and-india/

https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/a-case-for-truth/cid/1784527

More on Facebook and Twitter and content moderation

June 3, 2020

On 2 June 2020 many media (here Natasha Kuma) wrote about the ‘hot potatoe’ in the social media debate about which posts are harmful and should be deleted or given a warning. Interesting to note that the European Commission supported the unprecedented decision of Twitter to mark the message of the President Trump about the situation in Minneapolis as violating the rules of the company about the glorification of violence.

The EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “we welcome the contribution of Twitter, directed to the social network of respected European approach”. Breton also wrote: “Recent events in the United States show that we need to find the right answers to difficult questions. What should be the role of digital platforms in terms of preventing the flow of misinformation during the election, or the crisis in health care? How to prevent the spread of hate speech on the Internet?” Vice-President of the European Commission Faith Jourova in turn, said that politicians should respond to criticism with facts, not resorting to threats and attacks.

Some employees of Facebook staged a virtual protest against the decision of Mark Zuckerberg not to take any action on the statements of Trum,. The leaders of the three American civil rights groups after a conversation with Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, released a joint statement in which they say that human rights defenders were not satisfied with the explanation of Mark Zuckerberg position: “He (Zuckerberg) refuses to acknowledge that Facebook is promoting trump’s call for violence against the protesters. Mark sets a very dangerous precedent.”

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Earlier – on 14 May 2020 – David Cohen wrote about Facebook having outlined learnings and steps it has taken as a result of its Human Rights Impact Assessments in Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka

Facebook shared results from a human rights impact assessments it commissioned in 2018 to evaluate the role of its services in Cambodia, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Director of human rights Miranda Sissons and product policy manager, human rights Alex Warofka said in a Newsroom post, “Freedom of expression is a foundational human right that allows for the free flow of information. We’re reminded how vital this is, in particular, as the world grapples with Covid-19, and accurate and authoritative information is more important than ever. Human rights defenders know this and fight for these freedoms every day. For Facebook, which stands for giving people voice, these rights are core to why we exist.

Sissons and Warofka said that since this research was conducted, Facebook took steps to formalize an approach to determine which countries require more investment, including increased staffing, product changes and further research.

Facebook worked with BSR on the assessment of its role in Cambodia, and with Article One for Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Recommendations that were similar across all three reports:

  • Improving corporate accountability around human rights.
  • Updating community standards and improving enforcement.
  • Investing in changes to platform architecture to promote authoritative information and reduce the spread of abusive content.
  • Improving reporting mechanisms and response times.
  • Engaging more regularly and substantively with civil society organizations.
  • Increasing transparency so that people better understand Facebook’s approach to content, misinformation and News Feed ranking.
  • Continuing human rights due diligence.

…Key updates to the social network’s community standards included a policy to remove verified misinformation that contributes to the risk of imminent physical harm, as well as protections for vulnerable groups (veiled women, LGBTQ+ individuals, human rights activists) who would run the risk of offline harm if they were “outed.”

Engagement with civil society organizations was formalized, and local fact-checking partnerships were bolstered in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Sissons and Warofka concluded, “As we work to protect human rights and mitigate the adverse impacts of our platform, we have sought to communicate more transparently and build trust with rights holders. We also aim to use our presence in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Cambodia to advance human rights, as outlined in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and in Article One and BSR’s assessments. In particular, we are deeply troubled by the arrests of people who have used Facebook to engage in peaceful political expression, and we will continue to advocate for freedom of expression and stronger protections of user data.

https://www.adweek.com/digital/facebook-details-human-rights-impact-assessments-in-cambodia-indonesia-sri-lanka/

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But it is not all roses for Twitter either: On 11 May 2020 Frances Eve (deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders) wrote about Twitter becoming the “Chinese Government’s Double Weapon: Punishing Dissent and Propagating Disinformation”.

She relates the story of former journalist Zhang Jialong whose “criminal activity,” according to the prosecutor’s charge sheet, is that “from 2016 onwards, the defendant Zhang Jialong used his phone and computer…. many times to log onto the overseas platform ‘Twitter,’ and through the account ‘张贾龙@zhangjialong’ repeatedly used the platform to post and retweet a great amount of false information that defamed the image of the [Chinese Communist] Party, the state, and the government.”…..

Human rights defenders like Zhang are increasingly being accused of using Twitter, alongside Chinese social media platforms like Weibo, WeChat, and QQ, to commit the “crime” of “slandering” the Chinese Communist Party or the government by expressing their opinions. As many Chinese human rights activists have increasingly tried to express themselves uncensored on Twitter, police have stepped up its monitoring of the platform. Thirty minutes after activist Deng Chuanbin sent a tweet on May 16, 2019 that referenced the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Sichuan police were outside his apartment building. He has been in pre-trial detention ever since, accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

…..While the Chinese government systematically denies Chinese people their right to express themselves freely on the Internet, … the government has aggressively used blocked western social media platforms like Twitter to promote its propaganda and launch disinformation campaigns overseas…

Zhang Jialong’s last tweet was an announcement of the birth of his daughter on June 8, 2019. He should be free and be able to watch her grow up. She deserves to grow up in a country where her father isn’t jailed for his speech.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/v7ggvy/chinas-unleashing-a-propaganda-wolfpack-on-twitter-even-though-citizens-go-to-jail-for-tweeting

To see some other posts on content moderation: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/content-moderation/

Emi Palmor’s selection to Facebook oversight board criticised by Palestinian NGOs

May 16, 2020

After reporting on the Saudi criticism regarding the composition of Facebook’s new oversight board [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/05/13/tawakkol-karman-on-facebooks-oversight-board-doesnt-please-saudis/], here the position of Palestinian civil society organizations who are very unhappy with the selection of the former General Director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice.

On 15 May 2020, MENAFN – Palestine News Network – reports that Palestinian civil society organizations condemn the selection of Emi Palmor, the former General Director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, to Facebook’s Oversight Board and raises the alarm about the impact that her role will play in further shrinking the space for freedom of expression online and the protection of human rights. While it is important that the Members of the Oversight Board should be diverse, it is equally essential that they are known to be leaders in upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights worldwide.

Under Emi Palmor’s direction, the Israeli Ministry of Justice petitioned Facebook to censor legitimate speech of human rights defenders and journalists because it was deemed politically undesirable. This is contrary to international human rights law standards and recommendations issued by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as digital rights experts and activists which argue that censorship must be rare and well justified to protect freedom of speech and that companies should develop tools that ‘prevent or mitigate the human rights risks caused by national laws or demands inconsistent with international standards.’

During Palmor’s time at the Israeli Ministry of Justice (2014-2019), the Ministry established the Israeli Cyber Unit, ……….

Additionally, as documented in Facebook’s Transparency Report, since 2016, there has been an increase in the number of Israeli government requests for data, which now total over 700, 50 percent of which were submitted under ’emergency requests’ and were not related to legal processes. These are not isolated attempts to restrict Palestinian digital rights and freedom of expression online. Instead, they fall within the context of a widespread and systematic attempt by the Israeli government, particularly through the Cyber Unit formerly headed by Emi Palmor, to silence Palestinians, to remove social media content critical of Israeli policies and practices and to smear and delegitmize human rights defenders, activists and organizations seeking to challenge Israeli rights abuses against the Palestinian people.

 

Tawakkol Karman on Facebook’s Oversight Board doesn’t please Saudis

May 13, 2020

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yemeni Tawakkol Karman (AFP)

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Yemeni Tawakkol Karman (AFP)

On 10 May 2020 AlBawaba reported that Facebook had appointed Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakkol Karman as a member of its newly-launched Oversight Board, an independent committee which will have the final say in whether Facebook and Instagram should allow or remove specific content. [ see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/11/algorithms-designed-to-suppress-isis-content-may-also-suppress-evidence-of-human-rights-violations/]

Karman, a human rights activist, journalist and politician, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising. Her appointment to the Facebook body has led to sharp reaction in the Saudi social media. She said that she has been subjected to a campaign of online harassment by Saudi media ever since she was appointed to Facebook’s Oversight Board. In a Twitter post on Monday she said, “I am subjected to widespread bullying & a smear campaign by #Saudi media & its allies.” Karman referred to the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi indicating fears that she could be the target of physical violence.

Tawakkol Karman @TawakkolKarman

I am subjected to widespread bullying&a smear campaign by ’s media&its allies. What is more important now is to be safe from the saw used to cut ’s body into pieces.I am in my way to &I consider this as a report to the international public opinion.

However, previous Saudi Twitter campaigns have been proven by social media analysts to be manufactured and unrepresentative of public opinion, with thousands of suspicious Twitter accounts churning out near-identical tweets in support of the Saudi government line. The Yemeni human rights organization SAM for Rights and Liberties condemned the campaign against Karman, saying in a statement that “personalities close to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, as well as newspapers and satellite channels financed by these two regimes had joined a campaign of hate, and this was not a normal manifestation of responsible expression of opinion“.

Corona pandemic leads to “tsunami of hate and xenophobia” says Guterres

May 8, 2020
Coronavirus Has Sparked 'Tsunami Of Hate And Xenophobia': UN Chief
UN chief Antonio Guterres appealed for “an all-out effort to end hate speech globally. (File photo)

Additionally, “journalists, whistleblowers, health professionals, aid workers and human rights defenders are being targeted simply for doing their jobs,” Guterres said. The UN chief … singled out educational institutions to help teach “digital literacy” to young people — whom he called “captive and potentially despairing audiences.” Guterres also called on “the media, especially social media companies, to do much more to flag and… remove racist, misogynist and other harmful content.”

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/06/19/un-strategy-and-plan-of-action-on-hate-speech-launched/

https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/un-chief-antonio-guterres-says-coronavirus-covid-19-has-sparked-tsunami-of-hate-and-xenophobia-2225238

Nigeria: almost a hundred NGOs call on the Senate to reject Anti-Social Media Bill

March 5, 2020
Gabriel Ewepu in the Vanguard of 5 March 2020 reports that 95 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), under the auspices of Coalition of Civil Society Organizations for Protection of Civic Space, called on the Nigerian Senate to reject the Anti-Social Media Bill. This call was contained in a statement signed by leaders of the 95 during a media conference in Abuja. The statement reads in part:

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