Silencing narratives: Zoom video communications platform censors activists and inhibits academic freedom

Lara Hamidi
Researcher for ImpACT International

 

Censorship of activist voices is not a new phenomenon and comes in many different shapes and forms. The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in its own variations, as daily communication increasingly shifts to online platforms such as Zoom.

The popularity of the American video-communication platform has soared while workers around the world stay home instead of going into the office. Yet despite the guarantee of free speech by the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, the company has abruptly cancelled broadcasts via its platform and taken down archived recordings when speakers are considered objectionable by financial backers and powerful governments such as Israel and China.

Chinese activists

On June 4, 2020, Zoom blocked the accounts of U.S.-based Chinese activists who were organizing an event on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Thousands of Chinese students died in the aftermath of a brutal government crackdown on protests held to demand freedom of speech and association. The pressure to block the event came from China's Communist leaders in an attempt to repress memories of the massacre and thoughts of further activism.

The Zoom account of Lee Cheuk-Yan, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, was shut down the day of the event. Another activist, Wang Dan, reports that his account was shut down as well. Zoom threatened to block other events organised by Chinese activists that oppose the Beijing-based Communist government.

Zoom officials claimed the event did not comply with local laws, further stating that when a broadcast is hosted in more than one country, the participants in each are required to comply with their respective laws, even if they suppress basic human rights. However, the company did not explain which laws were violated.

For the masses in China, Zoom is one of the only online platforms still accessible for sharing information, due to the controls on access imposed by the government since 2006. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are not accessible to Chinese citizens.

Academic freedom

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has become the main platform through which students learn, due to their inability to attend physical classes. However, learning should take place in an ecosystem that is not clouded and corrupted by power politics. Censorship of all types should be policed, prevented and punished if not. The unfettered right to information representing a full range of viewpoints is vital to a quality education and the development of critical thinking.

Universities and other higher-education institutions must protect students’ and faculty members’ right to freedom of information and expression and refuse to patronize platforms that do not do likewise.

Companies such as Zoom—particularly those headquartered in the United States, which is governed by a constitution protecting freedom of expression—should condemn autocratic governments such as those of China and Israel, instead of collaborating with them to restrict the rights of targeted groups

Palestinian activists

In one prominent case, Zoom forced the cancellation of two webinars featuring Palestinian activist Leila Khaled, sponsored by San Francisco State University and the University of Hawaii. Zoom refused to host the webinars after pressure from Israeli and Jewish lobby groups, including the Lawfare Project.

Khaled had been scheduled to speak to students for a class titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance,” as part of a national day of action organized by the U.S. Campaign for an Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Following Zoom’s cancellation, the event was streamed on YouTube and Facebook. However, those platforms quickly took down the video.

Also speaking in the cancelled webinar were Sekou Odinga, an American activist who was imprisoned until 2014 on charges connected to his membership in the Black Liberation Army, and Laura Whitehorn, an activist who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for her involvement in a 1983 U.S. Senate bombing.

By blocking of the narratives of specific population groups, these multinational media companies are complicit in Israel’s daily violations of Palestinian human rights

The Lawfare Project, which initiated the complaint about the webinar submitted to Zoom, uses lawsuits to harass pro-Palestinian organizers and organizations. The Israeli-funded organization published a celebration of the victory using the Twitter handle #EndJewHatred.

After the Zoom cancellation, New York University organized its own webinar in response to the censorship. Headlined as “We Will Not be Silenced: Against the Censorship and Criminalization of Academic Political Speech,” it too was cancelled by Zoom, stating that the event would violate undefined terms of service, as well as its use policy and community standards.

This is not the first time that technology platforms and social media giants have censored Palestinian content specifically. During the course of 2020, the accounts of 50 Palestinian activists and reporters have been deleted from Facebook based on the accusation that they do not comply with “community standards”—a norm that is not explained or justified.

In 2019, Facebook shut down around 60 Palestinian media pages, without a clear explanation. Twitter blocked the account of the Quds News Network. And the WhatsApp messaging app shut down accounts of several Palestinian journalists.

 

Conclusion

By blocking of the narratives of specific population groups, these multinational media companies are complicit in Israel’s daily violations of Palestinian human rights. The commercial interests that run online platforms such as Zoom, Facebook and Twitter have no legal right to act as gatekeeper, determining the information that is allowed to be circulated. They must be transparent about their policies and be held accountable to their users if and when they violate users’ privacy and/or freedom of expression and information. Such violations should not occur without a public explanation and the right to appeal.

Likewise, companies such as Zoom—particularly those headquartered in the United States, which is governed by a constitution protecting freedom of expression—should condemn autocratic governments such as those of China and Israel, instead of collaborating with them to restrict the rights of targeted groups. Their policies should be revised to ensure they prevent geographic or demographic censorship.

Related

‘We don’t want to die in this desert’: Nepali migrant workers strand...

Following allegations made by Nepalese workers employed by Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), London-based think tank ImpACT International for Human...

Facebook's blocking of accounts signals failure of oversight board

Facebook seems to abandon its corporate values in countries such as these in the pursuit of further economic growth

Moving Beyond Compliance: Integrating Respect for Human Rights and An...

Moving Beyond Compliance: Integrating Respect for Human Rights and Anti-Corruption