Facebook and Instagram apologise after mistakenly blocking out the hashtag Sikh for three months

September 7th, 2020 by

Instagram and its parent company Facebook have apologised after admitting that the hashtag ‘Sikh’ had been ‘mistakenly’ blocked on their platforms for three months. In early June, Instagram revealed in a tweet that the hashtag had been blocked on 7th March due to human error.

The company lifted the ban almost immediately, with Facebook following suit hours later. In a follow-up tweet, Instagram reported that the hashtags were mistakenly blocked on both platforms as a result of “a report that was inaccurately reviewed by our teams.”

Neither Instagram nor Facebook has commented further on the ban, but questions have arisen over how the ban on the hashtag had escaped the networks’ notice for so long. Instagram’s announcement coincided with the 35th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, the Indian military action that took place in early June 1984 and led to the deaths of thousands of Sikhs that year.

A rapid run of adverse publicity for both Facebook and Instagram

In a string of tweets in early June, Instagram claimed that it had not been aware of the bans until it had been notified by the community. This feedback led Instagram and Facebook to quickly move to unblock ‘#Sikh’, but Instagram admitted: “Our processes fell down here, and we’re sorry.”

This negative publicity for both social media sites seems especially badly-timed in the wake of accusations that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has not acted sufficiently strongly on inflammatory content by US President Donald Trump posted to Facebook in reaction to the George Floyd protests.

Instagram acknowledged early June to be “an incredibly important, painful time for the Sikh community”, adding: “We designed hashtags to allow people to come together and share with one another. It’s never our intention to silence the voices of this community, we are taking the necessary steps so that this doesn’t happen again.”

These comments were made only days after another tweet sent out by Instagram revealed it had learnt of users’ struggles with using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter or resharing related posts. In that instance, the platform’s anti-spam tool was reportedly causing incorrect “action blocked” messages.

Demands for answers to why #sikh was blocked

The Instagram and Facebook bans on the hashtags #Sikh and #Sikhism had been ongoing since March – and Instagram on Wednesday 3rd June faced a backlash from an emerging worldwide campaign alleging bias and censorship by the company.

On Twitter, the Sikh Press Association complained: “In the same week that #Neverforget1984 trends on Twitter, Instagram seemingly conspires to suppress the truth about the atrocities of the 1984 Sikh genocide by censoring the faith of 27 million people.”

Instagram broke its silence about the bans that same day and the company’s head Adam Mosseri explained: “Not sure what’s going on here, but we’re looking into it and will circle back. Thanks for calling it out.”  He also said that the company was “investigating why this happened.”

However, members of the Sikh community continued to express their dismay that the hashtag bans had occurred in the first place. Some commentators openly wondered how Sikh voices had been silenced for so long under Instagram’s nose, and even the brand’s explanation about how the ban inadvertently happened failed to quieten continued demands for explanations.

Actor Jassa Ahluwalia insisted that the whole debacle called for “a more thorough explanation”. Meanwhile, in response to news of the erroneously-reviewed report Instagram claimed had led to the bans, Sikh calligrapher Amrit Kaur J. pressed: “What report? Whose report? What was the content that was reported? How does an ENTIRE hashtag get blocked over a report?”

Freelance journalist Sandeep Singh tweeted to Instagram: “Sikhism is the world’s fifth-largest religion and the Sikh population is approximately 27 million. You made them invisible for three months.” He expressed amazement that the site’s team “were not aware of the term Sikh.”

It’s unclear whether either Facebook or Instagram will yet shed further light on how this particular PR disaster happened, but it does highlight how highly impartiality and freedom of speech are valued on social media platforms which often ensure that even marginalised voices are heard.

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