Lines in the Sand

When Facebook decides who’s a terrorist

Elena Scotti/FUSION

One July morning, a Kashmiri writer named Arif Ayaz Parrey was chatting with a friend on Facebook Messenger when suddenly the service logged him out. He tried to log back in, only to find his account had been disabled. Parrey wasn’t alone: Facebook had also blocked a Facebook group he runs, the Kashmiri Solidarity Network, along with the accounts of all of its other administrators.

Eventually, after Parrey submitted proof of his identity, Facebook restored his account, as well as the Facebook group. But since then, Parrey says that links that he and other group members have shared have been routinely removed for violating Facebook’s terms of services. After posting a news story from a Kashmiri newspaper about Hizbul Mujahideen militants, for example, Parrey’s account was temporarily disabled and he was banned from posting for 24 hours. When he later shared the same story, it happened again. Some members’ accounts have never been restored.

The Kashmiri Solidarity Network has not been the only account shut down for sharing content related to the conflict in Indian-administered, Muslim-majority Kashmir. The issue has even spawned a hashtag, #IndianOccupiedFB, and a gruesome Mark Zuckerberg meme.

“There has been mass purge of Kashmiri accounts,” said Mohammad Junaid, a founder of the Kashmiri Solidarity Network and an anthropologist studying political subjectivity in Kashmir at the City University of New York.

Mark Zuckerberg's face become a gruesome meme in the online batter over Kashmir.

Mark Zuckerberg's face become a gruesome meme in the online batter over Kashmir.

In intervening, Facebook has waded into a complicated geopolitical conflict. The Kashmiri Solidarity Network was started in 2010 by Kashmiri expats as a place to discuss and spread awareness about the increasingly violent situation in Kashmir. The Indian government (along with the U.S. and the E.U.) does consider the Kashmiri separatists Parrey posted about to be terrorists. But in Kashmir, the group has gained widespread support as a sweeping crackdown by the Indian military has practically paralyzed life in the region.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. What’s certain is that the politics of Kashmir—which both Pakistan and India have claimed authority over since the end of British rule in 1947—are very, very complicated.

Regardless, the post by Parrey that Facebook took down wasn’t terrorist propaganda. It was a news article.

When I asked Facebook about why it had shut down the accounts of members of the Kashmiri Solidarity Network, a Facebook spokesperson suggested that the online activity of Parrey and other members amounted to supporting terrorism.

“Our Community Standards prohibit content that praises or supports terrorists, terrorist organizations or terrorism, and we remove it as soon as we’re made aware of it,” the spokesperson said. “We welcome discussion on these subjects, but any terrorist content has to be clearly put in a context and not praise or support terrorists, terrorist organizations or terrorism.”

It is inevitable that technology companies seeking to connect every one in the world will find themselves at the center of geopolitical conflict. In conflicts like the Arab Spring, social media played a vital role in allowing anti-government demonstrators to organize against oppressive regimes and spread messages of dissent. But when companies like Facebook decide to weigh in—to pick a side—it can have the opposite effect.

In efforts to quell the conflict in Kashmir, Indian authorities have over the past few months banned newspapers and shut down internet and cellphone service. Just last week, the government banned the newspaper Parrey posted links from, the Kashmir Reader, one of the largest circulated English dailies in the region, for “inciting violence and disturbing peace and tranquility of the state.” The ban prompted protests from the Indian press.

“There has been an acute sense in Kashmir that the only way we can get the truth out there is if we report it ourselves,” Parrey told me, via email from where he lives in New Delhi.

But as people shared images and stories about police violence on Facebook, many found their accounts disabled—most of them confused about what exactly constituted “terrorist content.”

“That Facebook would play the role of a faithful handmaiden of the Indian state in these efforts to stop people from telling the real stories of Kashmir is distressing and alarming,” Parrey said.

India tops the list of governments that made requests to Facebook for details of accounts in the second half of 2015. Facebook reported that it blocked 14,971 pieces of content in India during that time in response to requests from government agencies and others.

In one example detailed in the report, Facebook said Indian law-enforcement officials requested the removal of an image “depicting a boy urinating on the Indian National Flag.” Facebook made the image inaccessible to users in India.

Facebook would not clarify whether the Kashmir posts were removed at the request of the Indian government. But India, with a population of 1.2 billion but fewer that 200 million monthly active users, is a crucial market for Facebook’s growth. Earlier this year, it sought to expand its Indian footprint with the introduction of a pared down version of Facebook called “Free Basics,” but the Indian government shot it down.

“Facebook promotes itself as a voice of the people against oppressed leaders when it comes to situations like the Arab Spring. But here it is supporting the place of the Indian government,” Jumaid told me. “We rely on media like Facebook and Twitter to express ourselves. Who decides where the boundaries are, what kinds of content can be shared and what cannot?”

Facebook is not the only social network to find itself enmeshed in such conflict, nor is India the only country where it has been an issue. Turkey, for example, has used court orders to compel Twitter to block the tweets of journalists from appearing to users within Turkey.

Facebook identifies groups as dangerous based on lists produced by governments and other international organizations, like the U.N. The US added Hizbul Mujahideen to its list of terrorist groups in 2003, explaining that the group, “occasionally strikes at civilian targets in Jammu and Kashmir but has not engaged in terrorist acts elsewhere.”

But it would be hard to read the point of view of the Facebook group as extremist—it’s really just a collection of links to news about Kashmir. Most of them are neutral, from mainstream publications like the BBC. Some of the stories shared take a critical eye towards India’s military activity in the region or imply support for an independent Kashmir. The main focus, though, is simply making others aware that the region is awash in violence and chaos.

Members of the Kashmiri Solidarity Network told me that one of the biggest problems was they really have no idea what exactly Facebook considers “terrorism” and what it doesn’t. Most of the posts Facebook has removed seem to be about militants, or the ranks of young Kashmiris joining the insurgency. It seems that the criteria for removal is arbitrary, potentially applying to almost anything having to do with violence in the region.

Facebook told me that some of the accounts it blocked were indeed a “mistake,” but failed to offer specifics on which content in particular was problematic. And to this day, group members told me that some content still appears to be censored.

Recently Parrey went to his Timeline to find a post from a few days before that linked to a video featuring militants singing a song telling their mothers not to cry if they die on the battle lines. It was gone.

“As a Kashmiri, I’m acutely aware that I live in a time where I have no rights in the real world and my life is arbitrary and subject to the whims of the Indian state,” Parrey told me. “It was frightening to find out that the arbitrariness extends to my virtual self on Facebook.”