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When Big-Tech Censorship Is Taken To Farcical Limits And How I Became A Victim

More from Dr. Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar

On 11 February 2021, my Facebook account of 13 years was disabled without reason. In an age when the world seems to be more lived on the virtual realm than in the real one, I had been also chipping in, albeit in a much lesser way lately than in the past. However, to be disabled without reason or recourse to appeal brought forth a beast that I had not expected to see myself, as much as I had read about it in both electronic and print media.

fb censorship
I was blocked on Facebook for something I didn’t approve of.

For me, Facebook has been a means to share my experiences and thoughts. It has been a means to stay in touch with people geographically placed in distant lands but share certain threads of memory or association with me.

Since I have never shared anything that may be distantly problematic or untrue, the whole incident was highly surprising. Initially, I thought that maybe certain ultra-left critics and opponents, mostly from my days in the United Kingdom, were back to call me out on my recent invitation to be called to BBCs Asian Network programme The Big Debate. For them, an Indic and Dharmic voice on an increasingly leftist channel was not digestible.

In the past, prominent Hindu speaker Shri Jay Lakhani had been hosted on this programme but faced a slightly distasteful experience. However, on closer investigation and consulting with personal sources, it came to light that all the admins of the Facebook page of a society that I had founded in Cambridge called CAMbFIRE had faced the same fate.

The absurd part was that the only slightly problematic event that may have triggered this was a certain Black Lives Matter event of which I was not even an active organiser of the event. The fact that I had been the President of the society and a remaining admin (on Facebook) from my term as President was enough for my account to have been disabled.

Had it been something glorious like standing up against an infamous but powerful public figure like Kim Jong Un or inglorious like the rants of Donald Trump on Twitter, it would still have made sense.

CAMbFIRE and Facebook Censuring

This entire incident brought to the fore a bigger problem that we face today — that of big tech, censorship and freedom of speech. Before going forward on this larger theme, I would like to highlight the central event and subject that seems to have been the basis of this move by Facebook.

CAMbFIRE began as a forum for free and open discussion, sans political rigidity, of socially relevant and politically important subjects of the day. In doing so, we did not flinch from asking the tough questions or exploring nuances that others on both sides of the political spectrum may not have on a given subject of discussion and debate. In January 2020, I left the society and only ever joined once in a while as an adviser and participant.

Back in the middle of 2020, CAMbFIRE had decided to organise an event on Black Lives Matter. The motivation to do so was the flare-up and movement for the cause underway in the United States, which had reached a crescendo after the deplorable death of George Floyd at the hands of cops.

The CAMbFIRE event was oriented in a manner wherein the facets of the BLM cause and movement were to be explored, along with — and this was what created the furore — the question of can there be a Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter. In the description of the programme on Facebook, the latter point was posed, becoming the bone of contention. Wave after wave of “activists” unleashed the worst kind of opposition, not with civilised criticism or debate, but just plain hate and even abuse (on Twitter).

The waves of hate. You can see ‘activists’ express mock-amazement, talking of my Hindu nationalism and even citing an old committee list (so much for their extensive research).

In all this, I had no hand whatsoever in either the conceptualisation, promotion or actual organisation of this programme and yet was a subject of the hate. Now, as a common citizen, without much contact with the inner workings of Big Tech and without having been given notice or reason for this fairly random act, I can only guess that it was around the reporting of this particular event and the Facebook (CAMbFIRE) page that hosted the event that the whole series of account-disabling took place.

All this was without knowing that I had reservations on how the programme was framed and conceived, and based on the highly flawed idea of “platforming” simply because I happened to still have been an admin on the Facebook page of the society responsible.

How Big-Tech Censorship can go Wrong

Censorship and regulation of debate and discussion are important to ensure that such interactions (or rather certain positions in such interactions) do not lead to conflagrations or acts of mental, emotional or physical violence to society members. However, when this censorship targets those who even remotely are unassociated with any such positioning or instigation, then that is problematic.

In my case, I have never been one for the All Lives Matter platform. As much as Ad Hominems, Petitio Principii or Ignoratio Ellenchi are logical fallacies in a debate; tautology happens to be one too.

Ofcourse all lives matter and dignity of the individual is important, but does that mean that specific cross-sections of identities and their associated historical baggage or crises must not be discussed? If that were the case, then the truth of death must dissuade us from doing anything at all while living, for all human experiences end in the singularity of death.

Even in the discussion of caste-based reservations, I have stood for the truth of social repression of certain communities, not only historically but even today and very much so, as much as I have stood against the misuse of positive affirmation by those who may not need it.

In today’s world, everything is so binary that people often forget that some do not tread either of the poles that are so-presented. I have previously written about how I find the whole conception of the political binary between the Left and the Right not only absurd but primitive. We live in such a polarised world that people cannot see anyone who does not conform to certain set ideas and notions succeed.

I am yet to get the notice that we all were supposed to turn into sheep, blindly following one of two (evidently limited) poles. Anybody who stands for India or Hindu values, or who does not find communism to be the dream that some believe it is, or who speaks against the hypocrisy of some in seeking the space for dissent but at the same time crushing any opposition in the crudest manner possible is not an “unthinking and uninformed Bhakt”, just as everyone who does like Lenin and Marx is not a Maoist and Urban Naxal — these being some of the terms in wide-use currently. I am an Indian proud of my Dharmic roots as well as a modern outlook on various subjects, and yes, these things can co-exist.

If U.S. President Joe Biden wants to end what he calls an “Uncivil War”, he must begin by cleaning his backyard. The position of Big-Tech companies has been highly problematic, with various policy reversals, inconsistent enforcements, shifting and fairly-unclear rationales for how they will approach content moderation, over the last decade.

There have been both human as well as machine-based errors by Facebook and Twitter in the past. In June 2019, Twitter apologised for suspending accounts critical of the Chinese government before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This turned out to be a case of a mistake made by a system designed to catch fake accounts and spammers.

In June 2019, videos on Hitler uploaded by British history teachers were flagged by YouTube for hate speech accidentally, as per The Guardian. The machine-based and the human moderation system works on term-based flagging, user behaviour, and users’ reporting. Whether a certain content stays up or is taken down can depend on a moderator’s interpretation of a single word or phrase.

social media
Representational image.

When one factors in subtleties like cultural context and understanding, this is a quicksand that social media sites and big-tech can often fall into. In 2017, Facebook was criticised by the members of the LGBTQ community after their accounts were wrongly suspended for using the word ‘dyke‘, as per Wired.

This has happened in the past when a story in the New York Post on an alleged meeting between Joe Biden and Ukrainian energy executive Vadym Pozharskyi was purportedly brokered by Biden’s son Hunter met immense opposition. While the story’s veracity is debatable, the systematic and brutal lockdown of the story’s distribution is a story in itself.

Former Democratic Party staff-member Andy Stone, who later became Facebook’s policy communication manager, said that Facebook would be reducing the distribution of the story. At the same time, Twitter barred users from sharing the story with followers or through direct messages and locked accounts of people who retweeted it. This included the then-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

In June 2020, Google excluded the website ZeroHedge from its advertisement platform based on “violations” in the comments sections of stories around Black Lives Matter. A month previously, Facebook took down 88 Trump campaign ads that attacked Antifa, the far-left movement. 

On the other hand, there have been users who have said that Facebook does not censor conservatives. Speaking of Black Lives Matter, way back in September 2016, Shaun King, a well-known BLM activist and writer, was temporarily banned for posting a screenshot of an email he received that used the N-word, in what Facebook regarded as a violation of “community standards”.

As per a report published by National Public Radio (NPR), the world of censorship by Facebook is more convoluted (ironically, in its simplicity) than it may look. Speaking to employees of the company, it was found that when a user flags some content on Facebook, it is sent to a division known as the “Community Operations Team”.

Facebook apparently had tried crowdsourcing solutions such as CrowdFlower and then consulting firms such as Accenture that helped it assemble a dedicated team of subcontractors. Currently, this team has several thousand employees, with prominent offices in Poland and the Philippines. The catch here is that speed is of the essence for these employees, with a worker deciding on a piece of flagged content once every 10 seconds, on average.

This can create a problem when one has to understand the context or other nuances of a piece of content since these employees do not quite get time for making real judgements. In many cases, the resolution is fairly random and based on the decision made at that particular time. Moreover, due to privacy laws and technical glitches, subcontractors often cannot even see the full context of a piece of content.

Conclusion

Representational Image.

In this essay, I have highlighted two distinct issues that afflict our world today. One is that of the arbitrariness and unfairness of big-tech censorship, having faced the same for a rather incorrect association, as highlighted. This has been seen by users across the political spectrum but has lately been used by the Left in its crackdown on opponents.

The other issue is that of the witch-hunt and hounding undertaken by the radicals on either side of the political spectrum (myself having faced that of the ultra-Left in recent years) of anyone who does not conform to their definition of what is “politically correct”.

While the latter can only be countered by the two-pronged approach of proactive politics that transcends dogma and political rigidity along with calling out and strongly standing against any instances of parochial politicking, the former needs a nuanced and comprehensive plan to make sure that the world of social media and big-tech is truly fair.

There is a need for a clear and consistent framework for virtual platforms and applying the same fairly and equally to all users. At the moment, there is a debate around Section 230 of the U.S. Constitution, which shields social media companies from any liability for what their users post. This is seen to give platforms immunity when “moderating objectionable content”. Joe Biden has called for Section 230 to be revoked.

Besides this, several bills that would hold these social media behemoths legally accountable for how they moderate content are circulating in the U.S. Congress, including the PACT Act and EARN IT Act. In India, we have had a greater focus of the government on big-tech and social media companies, with the government recently calling on Twitter to block certain accounts after the unfortunate incident of protesters storming the Red Fort in Delhi.

I think the recent rise of Koo, an app made by Indians and supported even by Union Ministers, has been commendable and goes a certain way in breaking the monopoly of the West when it comes to social media and big-tech. Although Koo itself has various elements that are similar to Twitter’s (including the concept of ReKoo instead of a retweet), the step is the first of hopefully many others which would involve fundamentally novel tech initiatives that can make a mark internationally and potentially also set a new benchmark of fairness.

The contemporary world is increasingly elevating itself to a more information-driven existence, which relies heavily on the virtual domain that is dominated by social media and big-tech. Even as we discover modes of functionality, we must also ensure the operation and preeminence of universal values and ideals in this realm.

And prime among those are the ideas of liberty and freedom of speech, but even more than that is the principle of equality and fairness. Censorship and regulation are important in this world, but the misuse of elements to ensure moderation is counterproductive to the aims of the said-moderation. I am not sure whether Facebook will allow me to present these aspects for my individual case (given that it apparently does not want the CAMbFIRE admins to even appeal) and misjudgement of the CAMbFIRE association, but I feel it is only right to speak up on this so that people can be made aware of this all-too-evident problem of the modern world.

I want to end by quoting Soviet and Russian littérateur and poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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