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Ideas / Censorship in Colombia's national strike #paronacional
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Colombian protesters declared that they are being censored on social platforms when posting about the Paro Nacional (National Strike) that has been happening in recent days. There has also been internet disruption in Cali, one of the major sites of protest, according to NetBlocks. A few initiatives are working to preserve the memory shared on social media of this historic moment; this is crucial as it guarantees independence of the historical content from platforms’ servers and content moderation policies.

The #paronacional protests started on April 28 in several cities in Colombia as the population rejected the tax reform presented by President Ivan Duque. The proposal favored the Colombian elite and placed the majority of the responsibility of the public debt into the lower and middle classes, making them responsible for paying off the debt the country acquired in recent years, including in efforts to combat COVID-19. The presidential response was to set the military forces to quell the civil protesters, resulting in 47 deaths as of press time.

The records of the strike taking place on the streets have been largely shared on social networks, and comments emerged from protesters declaring that they were being censored on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. The Fundación de Libertad de Prensa (Colombian Press Freedom Foundation) also released a statement worried about the censoring of content as well as the violence against journalists committed by the military.

As a response, Facebook said that its AI technology was trained to remove content that was violent, and that it has a team of 30,000 content moderators in the platform. It’s important to understand the impact of these platform rules, as it’s unclear how much of the content has been wrongly labeled and how much was restored. To accomplish this, a record of incidents is needed as well as a report from the platforms. Tweets (Image: Several tweets of protesters commenting on content being erased from Instagram. “Did anyone else have issues with instagram when trying to view stories about the strike?” “Why is Instagram deleting content?” “All my stories from yesterday about Colombia were deleted. Did this happen to anybody else?”)

Memory preservation efforts

During this short time, initiatives were created to address the preservation and documentation of memory of the victims of state violence as well as of the content being censored in social media.

The Karisma Foundation, a civil society organization that works to promote human rights in the digital world, is collecting content that is being removed from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook through a questionnaire shared on social media via activist groups. To the foundation, these content takedowns indicate that this is a violation of the rights to communication, freedom of expression and access and dissemination of information.

Cuestión Pública, a Colombian online newsroom, is collecting and organizing data on the 47 fatal victims of the violent military repression on the streets, with content telling a little bit of their stories.

Cuestíon Pública

(Image: Online project of Cuestión Pública, organizing the names, photos and stories about the fatal victims of the Colombian protests)

The University of Chile created a Twitter bot called @ArchivaColombia and the hashtag #AseguraLaEvidencia (Save the Evidence). Content that has the hashtag on Twitter will be automatically saved on their servers and can also be sent via a Telegram channel.

Achiva Colombia Tweet

(Image showing how the Twitter bot works. once someone posts on Twitter, a user can reply to it with the hashtag #AseguraLaEvidencia and the content is saved on Telegram and the user can receive it as well)

Importance of sharing resistance experiences on social media

There is power in being connected and sharing micro and macro political learnings through social media. Collectives, journalists and civil society have been enhancing democratic ecosystems and networks by doing so.

In Colombia, activists observed that military violence grows at night, so the protests should happen only in the daylight and withdraw when it is dark. “Be water, my friend” is a famous saying from martial artist Bruce Lee and has been a slogan for resistance strategy adaptation in this case. This slogan has also been a part of the 2019 Hong Kong protests against the extradition bill, as protesters changed the patterns of where they would gather in the city, confounding the policing efforts and succeeding in self organizing publicly.

Instagram Post

(Instagram post: “To be water is to sabotage the fear based script” and “Protest during the day and at night time stay at home”)

If the protestors must act like water to evade the military, they have limited opportunities to evade platforms’ content moderation policies. Last August, several Latin America civil society organizations came together to propose ways to regulate large platforms from a Latin American perspective, recommending transparency, processes, co-regulation, defense and appeal mechanisms.

An example of this is related to the TOS of platforms and content moderation (translated from Spanish):

For any other measure of prioritization or restriction to expression and other content generated by its users that the platform can consider - for reasons commercial or other - “offensive”, “inappropriate”, “indecent” and vague definitions or similar measures that may illegitimately affect freedom of expression, large platforms must provide mechanisms and warnings for users - voluntarily and based on their moral, religious, cultural, political or other factors- that decide which content they want to have access to and which they do not. Such content should not be prohibited, excluded or reduced in any way if they do not meet the tripartite test of legality, necessity and proportionality, since this would disproportionately affect the right to freedom of expression of users.

In the absence of practical responses from the platforms, civil society in other countries in the region have been taking this matter to the courts; this could be a venue for the Colombian people. In April 2021 in Brazil, for example, Google was found guilty of committing prior restraint and of violating freedom of expression when they removed a video from YouTube of the Collective Intervozes. They were fined 10,000 USD, which set a national precedent for such cases. In the sentencing, the judge, José Carlos Ferreira Alves, mentioned “the fact is that whoever must impose content removal and therefore restrict / limit freedom of expression for the protection of rights is the State, through the Judiciary”, implying that this is not the role of a private company operating in the country.

An example of online response to censorship during the protests in Colombia is this meme that was shared on Twitter illustrating content moderators as nuns. It connected the platforms and their content moderators, responsible for enforcing the rules, to colonial, state and religious powers that have historically been responsible for cultural and political censorship in the region: Meme

(Image shows nuns sitting in front of computers. Text: “the Facebook team that is dedicated to blocking you for 30 days”.)

Tweets, videos, pictures and memes are digital artifacts that are both individual historical records and a part of the collective memory of nations and communities. In Latin America, repression and erasure of resistance movements are common political projects shared by every country as an inheritance from the colonial and military periods. In Colombia, the press has also been systematically censored by both the government and the narcotrafico. During the 1960s dictatorships, the censors were state representatives who worked within the newsrooms and regulated what was published daily. Similar censorship happened in Chile in 2019 during the protests, and at the time, the responses from the platforms varied from content labeled as terrorism to copyright violations.

These examples only highlight the importance of online spaces that guarantee freedom of expression, access to information and to document human rights violations. And it showcases the importance of archival work in the region that focuses on community resistance, political dissidents and activist work. Recordkeepers of the Resistance is an envisioned response to highlighting this issue and raising awareness of how this happens systematically in the region. We look not only at dissenting voices during political protests but also representations of diverse bodies and sexual expressions online.

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