The Indian government has banned social media in Kashmir: services including Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, YouTube (upload), Vine, Google+, QQ, WeChat, Qzone, Tumblr, Skype, Viber, Line, Snapchat, Pinterest, Telegram, Reddit, Snapfish, Xanga, Buzznet, Flickr and Baidu have been banned for a month. The order states that “elements inimical to public order and tranquility” were “transmitting objectionable contents, to spread disaffection amongst the public at large in Kashmir valley against the State Administration and the Security Forces, with a few to inciting them to commit various offences at a large scale, causing damage to life and property and disturb the peace and tranquility…”
The report order also states that “antinational and inimical elements largely succeed in transmitting unverified objectionable material and inflammatory material/content through the medium of these Social Networking sites and Instant Messaging Services without any accountability…”
How was this list, which includes services that are barely used in India, such as QQ, Qzone, Wechat, Baidu, Line and Google+, prepared? Does anyone still use Xanga? Aroon Deep suggests that this list could have been compiled from here. So the Indian government chose what to block based on a Google search result for top social networks in the world?
— IFF (@internetfreedom) April 26, 2017
— Pranesh Prakash (@pranesh) April 26, 2017
A few things:
1. What videos exactly? This Washington Post article says that the videos circulating are related to violence against Kashmiris earlier this month, including “Viral videos showing police officers beating civilians or soldiers forcing children to do push-ups in public” and “One video shows a stone-throwing teenage boy being shot by a soldier from a few meters (yards) away. Another shows soldiers making a group of young men, held inside an armored vehicle, shout profanities against Pakistan while a soldier kicks and slaps them with a stick. The video pans to a young boy’s bleeding face as he cries. Yet another clip shows three soldiers holding a teenage boy down with their boots and beating him on his back.”
Surely the government didn’t expect such acts by the army to lead to affection for the State Administration and Security Forces. Remember that the security forces came in for criticism after another video had surfaced earlier this month: they tied a civilian to an army jeep, and paraded him, using him as a human shield.
2. Not an easy decision: Kashmir has had the most number of Internet shutdowns, but as we learnt during a discussion we had held in Delhi, these are not easy decisions for local administrators. The spread of information (and misinformation) is so fast on services such as Whatsapp that local administrators are often helpless, and don’t know how to deal with it. The only option, they feel, is to pause the spread of information, give the administration some time to allow things to calm down, because they’re overwhelmed with dealing with addressing the situation while also trying to deal with the spread of the information that is causing the situation; one situation less to deal with helps.
3. The videos will surface anyway: If the attempt is to stop or stem the sharing of these videos in Kashmir, the impact is likely to be limited. When one app is shut down, people switch to another. When they block one site for uploading, another will be used. With these 22 apps being blocked, people will use alternatives such as Signal and Google Allo. When the Internet is shut, people will use bluetooth and perhaps even apps like Firechat (which was used during the Umbrella protests in Hong Kong after Internet access was shut).
Also, what happens after a month, when uploads are allowed?
4. Other solutions? One key solution suggested during our discussion was that of a counter-speech: of the government and administrative machinery using the same social channels to address fears. Given the nature of the videos reported by the Washington Post, there’s little chance of that happening here, especially that the trust in the administration and the Security Forces in Kashmir has historically been low.
Technology will not solve social and administrative problems, though its usage to stifle criticism and free speech will only exacerbate them. Shutting off social networking apps and free speech will, at best, delay the expression of dissent. At worst, it will redirect that dissent from speech to violence.