An Instagram post by @sikhcoalition, June 3, 2020, on the status of the #sikh hashtag being blocked on Facebook and Instagram. Screengrab

Facebook, Instagram unblock #Sikh hashtag amid 1984 massacre remembrance

(RNS) — After nearly three months, Facebook and Instagram have unblocked the #Sikh hashtag, saying the block occurred “mistakenly” after a user reported the hashtag in March.

“We became aware that these hashtags were blocked today following feedback we received from the community, and quickly moved to unblock them,” Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, said in a series of tweets. “Our processes fell down here, and we’re sorry.”

After the company investigated the issue, Facebook company spokeswoman Stephanie Otway confirmed to Religion News Service that the hashtag was reported by a user on the platform and “was mistakenly blocked following review.”

For nearly three months, the social media platforms displayed error messages to users searching for the #Sikh hashtag, saying posts were “temporarily hidden because of unusual activity” that may not meet the platforms’ community guidelines. On the #Sikhism hashtag, too, recent posts were hidden because of user reports of guideline violations.

The company became alerted to the block on Wednesday (June 3), after prominent Sikh figures and organizations including poet Rupi Kaur and the Sikh Press Association called on the company for an explanation.

Sikh community members said the block was particularly upsetting because this month marks the 36th anniversary of the deadly Sikh massacre that took place in India in 1984. Many Sikh users have been posting remembrances of the event with the hashtags.

“This is an incredibly important, painful time for the Sikh community,” Instagram said in a statement. “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 this doesn’t happen again.”

The Indian government’s military assault on Sikhs’ holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and ensuing pogroms killed thousands of Sikhs and displaced thousands more. Many Sikhs and human rights activists call the violence state-sponsored genocide, while Indian officials deny it was anything more than riots.

This deeply contested history, as well as Indian officials’ previous efforts to suppress any description of the violence as a genocide, led many Sikh social media users to accuse Facebook of engaging in censorship at the behest of the Indian government. Others suspected pro-India users had reported the hashtag en masse to cause posts tagged with #Sikh to be marked as spam.

“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,” the Sikh Press Association tweeted.

It’s far from the first time the company has mistakenly blocked hashtags and domains.

Just this week, Instagram blamed its spam detection tools for incorrectly blocking users from posting or interacting with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. 

“We have technology that detects rapidly increasing activity on Instagram to help combat spam,” Instagram explained in a tweet. “Given the increase in content shared to #blacklivesmatter, this technology is incorrectly coming into effect.”

The editors of Muslim, a new Muslim-led digital magazine for youth, also told RNS that they had previously been blocked from linking to articles on the site’s domain in Facebook and Instagram posts.

For months, they received messages saying the links they were attempting to post were suspicious — until Instagram asked the magazine to collaborate on a special Ramadan project. Then, the company unblocked the domain. Instagram did not offer any explanation, the editors said.