Silencing Kashmir: The Struggle for Voice in the Face of Social Media Censorship

Ifat Gazia / Mar 7, 2024

Courtesy Resistance Art Calendar, Stand With Kashmir, 2022. Artist name withheld for security reasons.

In 2024, it seems like more people concerned about social media and technology are talking about the collapse of X (formerly Twitter) than are talking on X. Elon Musk’s acquisition sharply changed the platform, and many experts and activists have abandoned it. Some even predict its impending ‘death.’

But I would argue that Twitter died years earlier for many activists and dissidents, especially when it comes to places like India and Kashmir, where government intervention against dissent is increasingly severe. In other words, it wasn’t just Musk’s policies that killed Twitter – it was the fact that social media was a powerful space for counterspeech, and many governments simply could not permit it.

How do I know? I am one of those thousands who have been surveilled, censored, and doxxed by an oppressive government, and then eventually de-platformed from a major social media platform for simply speaking the truth. Over time, I’ve come to understand that the problem is not, primarily, the cowardice of social media platforms that bow to authoritarians. The problem is with Western leaders who refuse to speak up.

My experience with Twitter, surveillance, and censorship

It’s well known that social media platforms have become an important tool for people who want to advance social justice or draw attention to human rights struggles that are often ignored by mainstream media. A Pew Research Center report published in 2020 said that 80% of Americans believe that social media platforms are effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. And many point to the events of the Arab Spring years as perhaps the most salient example of protest, coordinated on Western social media platforms, leading to change.

I used to share such optimism for social media, but now we know that things aren’t so simple. A decade ago, Twitter was the go-to digital platform for dissents like me and for thousands of other Kashmiris to speak out about the excesses of the Indian government. But in recent years, politically active Kashmiris have been almost completely silenced online. This is due to moves by the Indian government to pressure social media platforms to remove dissident speech.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. Long ago, I developed the habit of checking my Twitter notifications regularly, both for my account and for an account for the podcast I produce about Kashmiri issues. If the internet was slow and Twitter did not immediately load, my hands would quickly go to my email to see if the platform had sent me more correspondence regarding suspending my accounts.

I ran a podcast that tried to provide the world with direct, episodic access to the injustices that the people of Kashmir face every day. On July 4th, 2022, I received communication from Twitter stating that the account for The Kashmir Podcast was “withheld” in India at the demands of the Indian government. “Withholding” a Twitter account is a form of geoblocking - The Kashmir Podcast X account remains visible to X users in the US and Europe, but it is blocked for all X users in India. A few days later, I received another email alerting me that many posts from my personal account were also withheld in India at the request of the Indian government. It was a relief that the entire account was not withheld, but it was still unsettling. I was not shocked to see the emails. I was, however, both scared and angry.

I was scared because the tweets the platform agreed to withhold were ones where I outrightly called out India’s moves to claim territory and support for settler colonialism in Kashmir. For example, one of the posts said, “The already existing militarized lockdown will be further intensified to cage the local population so that the settlers and occupiers can roam freely in Kashmir, the ’heaven’ on earth. Also, the risk of further spreading of #COVID. This is nothing less than biological warfare.”

My experience is not a novel one. Content exposing India’s human rights violations and settler colonial agendas by advocacy groups like Stand With Kashmir has been blocked in India and Kashmir using the exact administrative mechanisms that now block my account. Other Kashmiris are forced to hide behind pseudonyms to vent their frustrations about the occupation. Often they are met with an army of pro-government ‘cyber volunteers’ who report any kind of ‘radicalization’ or any ‘anti-national’ activities and seek to get pseudonymous activists de-platformed. In addition to ‘cyber volunteers’ who are directly appointed by Jammu and Kashmir police, there are dedicated ‘IT cells’ run by the BJP government, that keep at bay anyone who does not support BJP’s agenda in Kashmir through fake news and propaganda.

The removal of posts and online harassment is, by itself, a concern. But it doesn’t stop with mere censorship. Those of us affected by these events have observed a clear pattern. In my case, I observed that the frequency of my tweets was linked to the number of investigative calls people in Kashmir would get about me. For some time, I kept track of these investigations. There were nine in seven months between 2021-2022. Since I have not been to Kashmir for almost five years now, people close to me in Kashmir –- particularly family members –- have had to remain answerable for my actions and speech.

These days, I post to X rarely, and in 2022 I had to pin a post to my profile saying I realized the consequences of my speaking up on the platform are harsh and that it would be best for me and for my friends and family not to post. I realize I cannot use social media to engage on political issues anymore, as long as these investigations continue.

The reality is that I am frightened. Who wouldn’t be when you clearly know what the consequences of speaking up are? Fellow journalists and activists have been imprisoned and regularly face threats, harassment and even beating by the authorities for simply doing their job. Understandably, many Kashmiris have gone silent. What’s become clear to me is that our experience is increasingly common, as governments move to exercise more power over speech on social media platforms.

India expands its influence and control over social media

Alongside the global, generational advance of authoritarianism, digital rights and freedom of expression are under attack. India is a case study for these trends. For example, Freedom House rates India as only ‘partly free,’ and its Freedom on the Net report notes that “the state continues to block online content at an increasing pace, and Indian internet users risk arrest for posts critical of the government.”

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in India in 2014, the country as a whole has experienced a gradual erosion of free speech. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi started by asking platforms like Twitter to remove or shut down certain content, but quickly moved to pass new laws that require social media company executives to comply with government demands or go to jail. In the broader internet policy community, these are known as “hostage laws” – domestic employees of social media platforms can in effect be held hostage by the Indian legal system if their companies defy Indian law.

The new laws can also send users to jail. For example, Muhammad Zubair, a fact-checking journalist in India who debunked BJP propaganda on Twitter, was arrested in 2022 over a four-year-old tweet. The Indian government passed these laws to further enact censorship and intensify the crackdown on any kind of information providers including news outlets and social media platforms. If the providers don’t comply with the request of the IT ministry to remove certain content within 36 hours, criminal proceedings will be held against the management of the social media platform. According to the Washington Post, in 2022, Twitter's top executive in India was summoned by the police for failing to comply with Indian law, and armed police showed up at the company's offices. In 2022 Twitter decided to sue the Indian government to challenge these restrictions on content. Their petition argued that the BJP government is seeking greater control of content on Twitter beyond what the law authorizes.

There seem to be few consequences for the Indian government. Despite India’s worsening human rights record, President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House in June 2023. It seems unlikely that anyone will cut ties with such a massive economy and potential counterweight to China. Because Modi’s sole aim appears to be to stay in power forever, his aggressive muzzling of free speech and any kind of dissent only makes sense.

What’s a platform to do?

The Modi government has created a difficult situation for X and other social media companies operating in India. In the process of curbing any kind of criticism and dissent, imprisoning activists and journalists, and de-platforming the rest of the critical voices from platforms, Modi has likely caused platforms to wonder whether they were wise to expand into the Indian market, or if they should continue to operate in it. Under the guise of “security reasons,” India’s public speech environment no longer resembles that of liberal democracy but increasingly resembles a repressive state like China.

Social media platforms are caught between the Indian government’s laws and its own policies and principles. Platforms are forced to comply with government demands to avoid losing liability exemptions even when they know that the blocking orders go against India’s Information Act. According to section 79 of this Act, social media companies like Facebook and X are exempt from the liability of the content posted on the platform. They are merely treated as intermediaries. However, a 2015 Supreme Court ruling makes it imperative for them to remove or ban anything from the platforms that the government seems ‘unfit.’ The only way to operate in one of the world’s largest markets may be to comply with these speech-restricting orders.

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned private messaging app that has over 530 million users in India, sued the Indian government to block government demands to trace chats by locating the first originator of a given message. Because WhatsApp is encrypted, any such compliance to the government would have undermined the user's security. India’s intent to trace messages on WhatsApp sent a clear signal to Kashmiri WhatsApp users, scores of whom moved to Signal soon after. The WhatsApp case is still pending in India and may indicate the degree to which India’s judiciary is willing to protect Indian users in online spaces.

In 2022, Twitter complied with government orders and geoblocked scores of accounts critical of India’s government. Not all these accounts operated from within India – anyone who criticizes the government of India in any way, no matter where in the world they are, can have their accounts withheld in India. In 2021, when farmer’s protests were going on in India, the Indian government demanded Twitter remove hundreds of accounts from its platform citing reasons for inciting violence. A well-known investigative news magazine, the Caravan News’ Twitter account was also withheld within India. Access to almost 250 accounts was blocked that were linked to protesting farmers.

If X eventually decides not to operate in India, that means it won’t operate in Kashmir either. If they were truly committed to free speech, the logical thing would be for X and perhaps other platforms would be to close Indian offices and leave the platform open to Indian users. They'd no longer be subject to the hostage laws, but they'd also forsake Indian advertisement revenue. But whether X stays in India or not, it won’t make a difference for Kashmiris. India simply will not allow any Kashmiri dissident voices to survive on X, or on other social media platforms.

It is critical that social media platforms defend the rights of their users to criticize the government, but platforms alone cannot change the situation we face in Kashmir. The withholding of my tweets in India has given me an opportunity to look back at my own tweeting patterns and realize to what extent India’s silencing had already had an effect. Some of the tweets that I am in trouble for are the tweets that I would not post today. The problem here is not just that X has acceded to the demands of the Indian government. Instead, it is a symptom of what the Indian government has been doing more broadly.

Don’t blame Musk. Blame Modi, and Biden

We now have more than a decade of evidence about the complex interplay between social media platforms, government censorship, activism, and the struggle for free expression. While it seemed briefly possible that social media may give people power over authoritarians, the state has reasserted its power in many parts of the world. The people with the bullets are ultimately more fearsome than the people with pesky ideas about justice and liberty who are armed only with smartphones and social media accounts.

Ultimately, I did not change my tweeting behavior and self-censor myself because I was worried about being banned from Twitter. I changed my behavior for fear of physical harm and intimidation to my loved ones back home. The online intimidation, doxing, trolling, and harassment in my case started in 2020. By 2021 Indian authorities had opened investigations in my name in Kashmir. I had to arrange for legal documents to be sent and submitted to the local police station in my home community. Thousands of miles away in the United States, I was badly shaken. Every incident of the investigation will push me a few inches deeper underground and shorten my tongue.

Digital intimidation – like all intimidation– is designed to silence dissidents. According to a 2022 report by the Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, “digital targeting has serious implications on the well-being of victims. It undermines their ability to engage in transnational advocacy work, violates fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and peaceful assembly, and increases the dangers faced by their family members and friends who remain within the country of origin.” The more I try to understand the mechanisms of silencing, the more I realize that in my case a social media platform may be complicit in my silencing, but it is not causal. I have silenced myself. The way I used to post is not the way I post anymore because the Indian government has effectively convinced me that I cannot do it.

Under Elon Musk, X still claims its mission is to serve as a platform for open, public discourse around the world. But to do this, it would need to be brave enough to stand up to pressure. But Twitter alone cannot maintain a public sphere for Kashmiris. There would need to be consequences on the international stage for India attacking freedom of speech, and thus far, there have not been any. Unless Western leaders, like President Joe Biden and others, are willing to stand up to Narendra Modi and address the restrictions on speech his government has imposed, what hope do the rest of us have?


Ifat Gazia
Ifat Gazia is a researcher, media producer, and social change agent, passionate about exploring the intersections of media and technology for social justice and civic engagement. She is currently a Research Fellow at the initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure (iDPI) at the University of Massac...